PERILS OF PAKISTAN: With new COAS, the army will rule Pak politics

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With just over 10 days left before the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS) takes charge, there is intense jockeying among the parties involved. The army, cowed down by intense public scrutiny and derision in the past few months, is not given to letting its power wane. The political parties remain divided and suspicious of each other, even in a coalition, and that offers a leverage for the army leadership … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

Rarely has a democratic country’s fate been so inextricably tied to the appointment of its new Army chief as in Pakistan. The political turbulence that has kept Pakistan and its people on tenterhooks for the best part of this year might not end with the new Army Chief taking charge by November 30 but it will certainly take a seemingly more logical turn, scramble among political parties to win the elections, overseen by the powerful military. But first, there must be a decision on the date of the general election and this decision will rest on who the new Army chief would be.

With over 10 days left before the new COAS takes charge, there is intense jockeying among the parties involved. The army, cowed down by intense public scrutiny and derision in the past few months, is not given to letting its power wane. The political parties remain divided and suspicious of each other, even in a coalition, and that offers leverage for the army leadership.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif Pic credits Instagram

The fact that there are hectic parleys among different actors in this theatre is not a secret. The recent meeting between Prime Minister Sharif and his elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, has put the game into the open. The Sharif brothers, extremely wary of the army, want to exert what little influence they can in deciding who will rule from Rawalpindi. Hence the first statement from the Sharif government was about a proposed amendment to the Pakistan Army Act to give extraordinary power to the Prime Minister in the appointment and extension of the Chief of Army Staff. It was intended as a challenge to the army.

The army is not going to let go of the most important move in the game–to select its own chief for political parties, least of all to the Sharif brothers with whom the Generals had a prolonged love-hate relationship. The Sharif family’s one of two biggest challenges come from within the coalition party it leads–Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rahman have different equations with the army, ever willing to negotiate with the Generals for a better future arrangement. So first the brothers talk among themselves in secret and then they confabulate with their political partners, a sign of distrust among them. In essence, they are parties in opposition, each with different equations with the other and the Generals. Each has a different axe to grind. What has driven them together is the new actor in the game, Imran Khan.

Imran Khan has never been on friendly terms with any of the main political parties. The former cricketing legend has had a better equation with the Generals. Although Khan fell out with his foster guardian, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, early this year, he had more support among the top and middle-rung officers than the Sharif-led PDM government. Khan’s political victories in Punjab since his removal show his newfound support among voters in the traditional base of the army rank and file. These victories have been, ostensibly, without the army’s support, and it has been a dent in the Sharif stronghold. His recent moves to wriggle out of hard positions, on the US and the COAS appointment, are a clever move to find possible support from the army in the election year.

The Sharifs are using the media to play their one-upmanship vis-a-vis the army. Besides the proposal to amend the Army Act, different stories have been floated about the probable new COAS and claims about seniority being the deciding factor. The Sharifs know their hands are tight on this issue but do not want to show themselves in a weaker light. Strangely, all of a sudden, neither the Sharifs nor Imran Khan are hitting at Bajwa, the cruel campaign against Generals seems to have lost its steam. What do these straws predict–whoever takes over from General Bajwa would remain loyal to the army first and foremost, and will play politics with greater vigour and craft than in the past few months.

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