After serving for nine years as the all-powerful chief of army staff, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf formally handed over charge to his handpicked successor, General Ashraf Kayani, on Wednesday.
The change of guard has raised many questions about the political future of Musharraf and the role of the Pakistan Army in the coming days. “The power comes from his position in the army. With that gone, we are looking at a much less powerful Musharraf,” comments Fauzia Wahab, a member of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).
However, this does not suggest that Musharraf has given away all his powers. As president, he still has the power to sack an elected prime minister. Also, as things stand, the backing from the Pakistan Army is very much with Musharraf, even in his new role as a civilian.
Political observers say that the army may try to distance itself from some of the more controversial decisions taken by Musharraf like the November 3 imposition of emergency in the country. “This is good for the army,” comments Moinuddin Haider, a retired general and former interior minister.
As elections approach, political parties are threatening to boycott the process if the emergency is not lifted and gags on the media and judiciary are not withdrawn. At the same time, his decision to allow former PM and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League(N) party, Nawaz Sharif, to return to Pakistan, despite a deal to keep him out of the country, suggests that the Pakistan president is looking at options for political alliances.
Ever since a political understanding between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, who heads the largest opposition party PPP in the country, fell through, Musharraf has been exploring other options. The ruling PML-Q party has the backing of the government and this will be instrumental in gaining success at the polls, but political pundits say that a coalition government will be in place after the elections.
The Pakistan Army, for its part, will now start to distance itself from the everyday politics of running a government. Despite its deep involvement in almost every part of Pakistani society, the retirement of General Musharraf gives it a chance lower its profile.
Sherry Rehman, who is Bhutto’s main spokesperson, says her party will now consider the changed situation before it decides on what political strategy to adopt. Most political parties have threatened to boycott the elections but so far, almost all major candidates have filed their nomination papers. This indicates that the doors are open for compromise.