A planned protest by opposition leader Imran Khan and clashes between his supporters and the government have added to the problems surrounding the appointment of the next Pakistan Army chief by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Authorities rounded up thousands of Khan’s supporters on Monday to foil his plan to lockdown Islamabad from November 2, sparking fears that the situation could take a turn for the worse.
Khan has threatened his ‘dharna’ will continue till Sharif’s government falls. On the other hand, the government has said it will deal with any disruption of commercial and other activities in Islamabad with a stern hand. Both sides appear to be on a collision course.
The timing of Khan’s protest is significant because Sharif is set to name a successor to Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif, who is scheduled to retire at the end of November. If there is violence in Islamabad and the government is unable to handle it, the army may be called in, which will not auger well for the Prime Minister.
“Already the army is upset with the government over the leaking of sensitive information to a newspaper by one of its cabinet ministers,” said analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi, adding the army will have the upper hand in the event of any law and order situation.
The government is under pressure to announce a new army chief according to recommendations of seniority provided by the army high command. Sharif, for his part, is suspicious of any general recommended to him by the top brass.
During his past two stints as premier, Sharif’s government was ousted due to military interventions. In the first instance, his clash with then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan led to his stepping down as prime minister in a deal brokered by Gen Waheed Kakar. In 1999, his second government was ousted by Gen Pervez Musharraf, who acted when Sharif wanted to replace him with a favourite general.
Sharif wants to announce his own candidate as army chief but this candidate is not on the list given by the army to the defence ministry. With the government on the defensive, what is clear is that Gen Sharif will now force the premier’s hand.
Another possibility is that if the situation deteriorates in Islamabad, the premier may have to swallow the bitter pill of giving an extension to Gen Sharif. While Gen Sharif has officially denied speculation that he is interested in an extension, there is a growing demand from various quarters that this should be done to maintain stability.
With the Supreme Court set to begin hearing a case related revelations in the Panama Papers leaks that Sharif’s children owned offshore assets, the coming days and weeks will be very challenging for not only the prime minister but for democracy in Pakistan.
This time round, the parties that stood by Sharif during Imran Khan’s ‘dharna’ in 2014 are absent. The main opposition force, the Pakistan People’s Party, too has demanded that Sharif step down.
Amid this political isolation, it is unclear what strategy Sharif and his colleagues have adopted for the days to come. So far, it seems confusion and chaos are the order of the day.