KARACHI, Pakistan -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces the daunting decision of choosing a new army chief, knowing that a poor choice could spell doom for the country’s fledgling democracy, while a wise choice would be no guarantee that the military won’t topple the civilian leadership sometime in the future, as it has so many times before.
Political analysts say there’s precious little evidence that Pakistan’s generals have embraced democracy or abandoned ambitions to impose a fifth junta, even though the military allowed the current civilian government to take over from the last elected one – the first time in Pakistani history that one elected government had served out its term and been followed by another.
Whether that’s a permanent change in the military’s outlook is much debated here, and it makes Sharif’s decision on who’ll replace the army chief – always a sensitive appointment – that much more crucial.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced earlier this month that he’d retire in November after six years in the job. During that stint, Kayani oversaw a 2008 general election that ushered in Pakistan’s third attempt at democracy since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Last May, the country saw an elected administration complete a five-year term for the first time, hold its most transparent election to date and transfer power to a new elected government.
Few Pakistani analysts give Kayani credit for being a champion of democracy. Instead, he’s viewed as a shrewd politician who saw wisdom in exerting the army’s political writ behind the country’s democratic facade. Indeed, that method of intervention has come to be called the “Kayani model” by politicians and analysts, as well as within the military.
“To some extent, it’s true that Kayani broke the pattern of military intervention, and preferred behind-the-scenes pursuance of closely watched policy prerogatives, particularly relations with the U.S. and (regional foe) India,” said Nadeem Malik, an analyst based in Islamabad.
“His analysis was that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring made direct military rule unfeasible and potentially very bad for Pakistan.”
Nor do the military and its allies in the civilian bureaucracy – together, they form Pakistan’s so-called establishment – have much respect for Sharif, who in two previous terms in office, during the 1990s, clashed with army chiefs, much to his detriment.
The first time, in 1993, his government was dismissed by a pro-establishment president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The second time, in 1999, he attempted to replace Gen. Pervez Musharraf with a handpicked general while Musharraf was on a working trip in Sri Lanka, trying to prevent the airliner in which he was traveling home from landing in Pakistan. That sparked a counter-coup and eight years of military rule by Musharraf.
“The military and bureaucracy do not like Sharif one bit. In private conversation, they portray him as a glutton and a simpleton incapable of governing,” said Aamir Ghauri, a political analyst based in Lahore, the political heartland of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
“That makes Sharif’s choice of army chief the biggest challenge of his career to date. If his choice ignores the career seniority of top generals, it would be seen as a swipe at the army, and Sharif will become that much easier to get rid of. His only salvation is to uphold seniority.”