ISLAMABAD: Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif on Friday ruled out the possibility of a military intervention in Pakistan amid growing political instability, saying there was “no room”for the army to abrogate the constitution by carrying out a coup against a civilian government.
The South Asian country has been ruled by the military for nearly half of its 75-year history and even when the army is not directly in power, it retains an outsized role in political affairs and national security. The last time the military toppled a Pakistani government was in 1999, launching an era of direct and indirect army rule that ended in 2008. Incidentally, the civilian government that was overthrown in 1999 was headed by Nawaz Sharif, who is the elder brother of the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Since then, three general elections have seen three different parties make the government at the center and despite widespread speculation, the military has not directly taken over, even in moments of intense political crisis.
But over the past year, Pakistan has been in the grips of unending political uncertainty, mainly triggered by the ouster of former prime minister Imran Khan last April, who has since been holding rallies and marches against the PM Shehbaz Sharif-led coalition government to demand snap national polls. Khan, who is embroiled in a string of court cases, has been avoiding arrest, which has led to violent clashes between Khan’s supporters and police who have tried to take him into custody in recent weeks.
The situation has given rise to fears of another military intervention, which Asif ruled out in a briefing with foreign correspondents on Friday.
“If you look at the history of four army interventions we’ve had over the last 75 years, those interventions were personally motivated,” Asif said in Islamabad, adding that the situation in those years — 1958, 1969, 1977, and 1999 — never "warranted any intervention."
“There is no link between violence, civil unrest, and the Pakistani army taking over in our history. So speculating that there will be chaos and civil unrest and the army will take over, citing the example of past takeovers [is unfounded] because past takeovers were based on personal ambitions and not for any particular situation of law and order in Pakistan.”
The minister said there were no constitutional provisions in Pakistan that allowed the army to take over and impose martial law.
“If there is civil unrest, then the civilian governments are responsible under the constitution and they will tackle the [situation], and in that process, if they have to call the army in aid of civil power, it is in the constitution but taking over the country is abrogating the constitution and there is no room for that,” the defence minister said.
Asked if he was suggesting the current military leadership had no "personal agenda," Asif said:
“Absolutely, the current military leadership has no personal agenda. Their only agenda is to defend Pakistan, internally and externally.”
The minister said that the government was willing to talk to Khan “for the sake of peace in our country” and to reach some sort of consensus on major issues. But the government wanted a “comprehensive” rather than a "transactional dialogue," he added.
Speaking about elections in Pakistan, including a national election and general elections in Punjab whose legislative assembly was dissolved in January, Asif said polls would be held simultaneously in October as per the schedule.
Earlier this week, the political crisis in Pakistan deepened as the election regulator announced the postponement of polls in Punjab province from April 30 to October 8.
The decision was made by the Election Commission of Pakistan, Asif said, as the body is empowered to make such decisions, adding that the federal government had only put forward suggestions to delay the polls due to security and financial reasons.
Pakistan has seen a rise in militant attacks in recent months and is also in the middle of a full-blown economic meltdown, which it is trying to avert by signing a loan deal with the IMF.