By Chris Allbritton
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - For decades, Pakistan's generals only had to pick up a phone and order the removal of anyone in the civilian government who had crossed them. It's not so simple anymore, as the army is finding out in its latest battle with President Asif Ali Zardari.
Despite the numerous crises hounding Zardari's government, the civilians for once hold the most cards in the non-stop bluffing game that defines Pakistani politics, giving it the confidence to stare down the powerful military, its political opponents and perhaps even the Supreme Court.
For months, pundits have been predicting the downfall of Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister in the 1990s and was assassinated on her return to the country from self-exile four years ago.
Zardari has never been popular. He has never shaken off his nickname - "Mr. 10 Percent", which refers to his alleged cut of any government contract made when his wife was prime minister.
Nor does he have many friends in the military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 64-year history through a series of coups, and for most of the rest from behind the scenes, setting security and foreign policy.
But now, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and his generals find themselves in a position of political isolation, and it is this that may have led to the army's uncharacteristic restraint.
"Unless the situation is totally out of control, he (Kayani) does not want to intervene," said Shauqat Qadir, a retired brigadier and military analyst. "There's always a couple of guys who say, 'Let's do this, how long are you going to take this?', but the rest of the commanders will say to take it easy."
For all the headlines about the prospect of another coup, then, an army takeover looks unlikely any time soon.
"They (Zardari and his allies) are on the offensive, because they think they have the upper hand," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
Still, the open hostilities will reinforce the view that Pakistan's leaders are caught up in power struggles so often that they are incapable of running a nuclear-armed country facing enormous social, security and economic problems.
The latest dispute with the military is over an unsigned memo sent in the wake of the U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town last year.
The memo, allegedly drafted on the direction of former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, asked for U.S. help in reining in the army, which the memo said was planning a coup.
When an American businessman revealed his role in writing and delivering the memo, the army went ballistic. Haqqani was forced to resign, and "memogate" has locked Zardari and the military in trench warfare ever since.
This week, Gilani fired the defense secretary, who was seen as Kayani's man in the bureaucracy. It was a brazen provocation, and yet the army responded with a stern press release, whereas in the past it would have sent troops in to take control.
Many saw this as a recognition by the military that it no longer has enough political support for a coup.
"They can take over, they have the capacity to take over," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst. "But they will find it extremely difficult to sustain power. That's the basic challenge for them."
The army has been on a back foot since the surprise U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. The discovery that the al Qaeda leader may have been holed up for years not far from Pakistan's capital infuriated U.S. officials, hurting the military's standing with its traditional American backers.
Few generals want to repeat the mistakes made by Pakistan's last coup leader, General Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president in disgrace in 2008 to avoid impeachment for violating the constitution.
The military will also be reluctant to assume responsibility for a host of problems that range from a tottering economy, widespread poverty and power shortages that would open it up to further public criticism.
Furthermore, any military government would face international sanctions: its ties with Washington are already at their lowest ebb since 2001, and a coup would make it worse.
Under U.S. law, no aid -- other than for the promotion of democracy -- may be provided to a country whose elected head has been toppled in a coup. Pakistan is one of the main recipients of U.S. foreign aid, receiving almost $20 billion since 2001.
President Zardari may have concluded that - given all this - the military will not have the stomach for another coup and is now daring the generals to make a move, betting that the civilians will win the showdown.
Close aides say Zardari wants to be remembered as the leader who worked harder than any other to promote civilian rule in Pakistan and loosen the military's hold on power.
Zardari is "stubborn and headstrong with a strong sense of street politics", said a senior member of his Pakistan People's Party (PPP). "And he has a desire for a legacy as the man who finally got the ballot box to prevail."
No civilian government has ever served out its full five-year term in Pakistan, but Zardari's government might just do it. The next general election is due by 2013, and legislators will elect a new president, a largely ceremonial post, after that poll.
Zardari is also reportedly good friends with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has brought the powerful Turkish army -- also with a habit of staging coups -- to heel.
"Erdogan and Zardari consult on strategy on the phone every now and then," the party member said. "They're very close friends."
But if the military is constrained, what about the Supreme Court, which is his next biggest threat?
As an opponent of the Musharraf regime, Zardari had multiple cases of corruption and even murder lodged against him, all of which he says are false and politically motivated.
He swept to power in a sympathy vote after his wife's assassination, but an amnesty deal that protected him from prosecution was nullified in 2009 and now he is fighting for his political survival with the judiciary as well as the army.
This week, the courts threatened to disqualify Zardari ally Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for office or even urge the impeachment of the president if the government didn't re-open corruption charges against him. The government says it won't take up the graft charges again because, as head of state, Zardari enjoys immunity.
Gilani could well be dismissed, party members say, but he is just one member of the national assembly. The PPP-led coalition government could elect another prime minister and muddle through the ensuing controversy.
Impeaching Zardari would be problematic, however. It takes a two-thirds majority of parliament to do so, and the opposition -- most of which oppose a military takeover -- would be hard pressed to marshal that.
So with these curbs on the military and the judiciary, the civilian government has the whip-hand for perhaps the first time in Pakistan's history.
"It is a very young democracy in some ways, playing a high-stakes drama," said a senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named. "But it is a democratic process. And if it can work itself through to elections and peaceful change, and peaceful resolution, then that's positive for the longer term."
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway and Qasim Nauman; Editing by John Chalmers)