Of Pakistan’s general elections and the General’s selection

Of Pakistan’s general elections and the General’s selection

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There are two events of utmost importance in Pakistan’s political calendar: the general elections and the General’s selection. The latter is done with, at long last, and the former doesn’t seem to be on the cards till sometime next year. Meanwhile, Imran Khan ends his extremely long march with a promise/ threat to dissolve the KP and Punjab assemblies in order to force the government to hold elections on a large scale, thus proving that in Pakistan, political crises don’t just end, they mutate into new crises.

Whether Khan will follow through remains to be seen, and the technicalities of such a move – along with what countermeasures the perennially beleaguered Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government may take – have been discussed threadbare by more learned minds, and so I restrict myself to the obvious: that with the march being unsuccessful in its stated objective of pushing the government into announcing elections and in its unstated objective of not letting the government nominate the Army Chief of its choice, there was no choice but to end it with some kind of a bang. This also jibes perfectly with Khan’s desire to keep the government permanently off-balance and to keep the initiative, leaving others scrambling to catch up. In the stock market of Pakistan’s political narratives, it is Khan who rings the opening and closing bells. Having said that, and despite the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) somewhat chequered record of following through with resignations, one must recognize the fact that once Khan gets an idea in his head, even laser-guided nanosurgery can’t remove it.

Also open to interpretation is what occurred during President Alvi’s ‘consultation’ with Khan prior to the President signing the summary for the appointment of the new chief. One can look at it as an optical attempt by Khan to insert himself into a process in which he has no legal or constitutional say, and one which he was unable to derail or delay. Another interpretation is that while It is no secret that Khan didn’t want General Munir to occupy the top slot, he was told that this was a fait accompli, and to rail against the decision would be to start his relationship with the new chief on the wrong footing. After all, while his dispute with former Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) Bajwa had become extremely personal, attempting to derail the incoming chief would make it a direct clash with the entire military establishment. Note that it was Khan’s attempts to retain General Faiz as Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with a possible view to later elevating him to COAS that is the main alleged cause of the breakdown of his relationship with General Bajwa, a man who helped place him in power and keep him there, to the once-loud praise of the entire PTI.

The incoming chief has a full plate of issues to deal with, with the battering of the army’s public image at the hands and tweets of their once most allied of allies, perhaps being foremost.

Zarrar Khuhro

Here we should note that while generals have, do and perhaps will continue to have ‘favorite’ politicians, the brass frowns upon politicians having ‘favorite’ generals. With that in mind, one should also discount impressions that the new army chief will be obliged to those who elevated him, as history teaches us that incoming COAS’s are keen to shed the label of being beholden to anyone.

Nevertheless, the incoming chief has a full plate of issues to deal with, with the battering of the army’s public image at the hands and tweets of their once most allied of allies, perhaps being foremost.

The nature of the challenges is such that the new chief may not be able to enjoy the traditional settling-in period that follows such a transition, as he will be watched very carefully by all stakeholders anxious to see what the new direction may be. Any hint of a leaning towards one side or the other will mean that the new chief may well face the same kind of attacks and criticism that plagued Bajwa on his way out. Given Bajwa’s public acceptance of the army’s decades’ long interference in politics and his pledge to end such interference, any hints of resumed engineering will be carefully examined.

Will that engineering end? The closest analogy that comes to mind is that of trying to quit smoking after decades of puffing away: you can mean to quit; you can believe it with all your heart and soul…but there are triggers. Say you’re in a bad mood because things aren’t going your way. You light up. Say you have a lovely meal, followed by a cup of tea. You take a drag. Say you’re in the company of old friends, none of whom have decided to ditch the butts. You light up. In that moment of weakness or indulgence, all the reasons for quitting vanish in a puff of smoke.

It’s the triggers we’ll have to watch for: economic policies that affect the military’s footprint, for example, or an extended political crisis that prompts the army into a more front-seat role. Then there’s a polity that is far too used to the army playing the role of troubleshooter and facilitator, and that’s a habit that will be hard to shed as well. Consider that the nature of the challenges, economic and otherwise, are such that without a consensus between all political parties, no solution or direction is possible. Consider then that even getting these sworn enemies into the same room seems impossible, let alone getting them to agree on anything. How long then before all eyes are once again on GHQ to play a role in creating consensus? And once that first drag is taken, how long before we are back to smoking two packets a day?

- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro

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