While there is some good news for the country’s beleaguered PML-N, troubles still loom, especially in light of tense civil-military relations, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai
The political uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government seems to have ended following the first visit by Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to the Upper House of Parliament(Senate) on December 19, where he renewed the military’s commitment to democracy and the supremacy of parliament.
Prior to the much-publicised visit, various conspiracy theories were circulating that the federal government was on its way out because the military was unhappy with how it functioned and concerned about the poor state of the economy. Speculation was rife that the government would be packed up before the scheduled polls for the Upper House of Parliament in March 2018, in which the ruling PML-N is poised to win more seats and take control of the Senate. Another conspiracy theory suggestedthat the next general election, proposed to be held in August this year, might be postponed, with a government of technocrats installed to undertake major political and economic reforms and carry out a tough accountability campaign against the corrupt politicians, businessmen and people from other walks of life.
These rumours are likely to stop for a while but there is no guarantee the conspiracy theories will end completely due to the uneasy nature of civil-military relations in Pakistan, and the past history of military takeovers. The powerful military has ruled the country for nearly half its life since independence from British rule in 1947. When it isnot directly in power, as is the situation nowadays, the military nevertheless plays a key role in decision-making, particularly in issues with a security aspect, as is the case with India, Afghanistan, the US and the nuclear programme.
The Army chief’s visit to the Senate took place a few days after a recent television interview in which Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the Speaker of the National Assembly and a close aide of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, commented that the assemblies may not complete the five-year term until 2019. His statement fuelled feverish speculation as to when the assemblies would be dissolved and whether the military would seize power or install a caretaker government of technocrats for a longer period than the mandatory three months required under the law for holding the general election. The elections in Pakistan are now organised by caretaker governments comprising neutral, non-political members to ensure that the outcome of the polls isnot manipulated by the incumbent political government.
Although journalists weren’t allowed in the Senate to report the interaction of General Bajwa and other senior army officers with the senators, the media managed to glean information from different sources. Some of the senators spoke to the media, painting a picture of contentment with the briefing given to them about the security situation in the country and the ‘military diplomacy’ undertaken by the Army chief when he paid visits recently to Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The members of the Senate said they had asked the Army chief a range of questions – including difficult onesabout Pakistan’s decision to join the Saudi Arabia-led military alliance against terrorism and allow former Army chief General (Ret’d) Raheel Sharif to command the proposed force –and received answers. General Bajwa had made it clear, said the senators, that this new Islamic military force, which is being opposed by Iran and its Shiite allies, will not be used against any other Muslim country. Besides, he clarified that it was the personal decision of his predecessor, General (Ret’d) Raheel Sharif,to join and command the upcoming force. GeneralBajwa also emphasisedthat the working plan of the joint Islamic force being set up to fight terrorism has not yet been finalised.
According to some of the senators who spoke to waiting journalists outside the Senate building, General Bajwa denied reports that the army was behind the radical Islamic group Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan that recently paralysed life in the federal capital Islamabad by staging a protest sit-in that blocked a major entrance to the city for 21 days. He said the army mediated between the protestors and the government in order to end the protest, as the issue could have led to violence and harmed the country. The government gave in to the protestors by accepting their demand to remove federal law minister Zahid Hamid for having tabled a controversial bill in parliament in which the wording about the finality of Prophethood was amended.The deal was criticised by many politicians and civil society activists who said the government should not have bowed to pressure from the hardline Islamic group that brought a mob to Islamabad and prevailed in the end.
It is obvious that the PML-N government has lost strength after the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on charges of hiding his wealth and ordering the filing of references against him, his two sons and daughter on further charges of corruption and misuse of power. Due to the court’s ruling, finance minister Ishaq Dar, who is himself related to Nawaz Sharif, also had to step down. The Nawaz Sharif government had earlier been weakened by the long protest sit-ins staged in Islamabad in August 2014 by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the main opposition leader heading the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), who alleged that the 2013 general election was rigged, and the religious scholar Tahirul Qadri, who was seeking justice for 14 of his followers after a firing incident in Lahore. Though Nawaz Sharif didnot resign at the time and survived the protests with support from other political parties, his authority had been openly challenged and his government increasingly found it difficult to run an independent foreign policy and deliver on its election campaign promises.
The Army chief’s comments reportedly made during his visit to the Senate certainly brought good tidings for the PML-N leadership, as the government will now be hoping to complete its five-year term and prepare for the next polls without worrying about its fate. However, one cannot rule out the emergence of new crises in the remaining period of its rule as Imran Khan has been demanding early polls and also the resignation of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N’s declared candidate for the office of prime minister in the coming election, in case Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to clear his name in the courts fail. The challenges facing the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif are far from over. In fact, there isno real chance that the courts will give him relief and allow him to contest the 2018 general election.