Political maelstrom surrounding Pakistan army chief’s successor

Islamabad: In Pakistan, it is said, more seriously than jokingly, that political power flows through the barrel of the army’s gun. For the first time, the post and personality of the army chief and his likely successor are honest. They have in fact become a major part of the political conundrum.

President Arif Alvi is the latest entrant in the raging debate over who should be the next army chief, when and how, confusing and complicating an already murky situation. This only reinforces the role of the all-powerful military in the South Asian nation’s political affairs.

Alvi has sought a role for his office, indeed himself, in the decision-making process involving the selection of the next army chief to succeed the incumbent, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is scheduled to retire on November 29 this year.

In an interview with journalist Asma Shirazi on Aaj TV, the president wanted “a summary of the appointment to be sent to him after the consultation is over,” Dawn newspaper reported.

However, Pakistan’s constitution does not provide for a role for the president, who is effectively the titular head of a government that follows a parliamentary system and has a government headed by a prime minister. The sole prerogative of the incumbent is to mark the name of the officer of his choice from the list sent by the Ministry of Defence, or even a general who is not in that group.

Alvi on October 10 asked that a “broader consultation” on the appointment of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was “must so that consensus can be reached”.

With the call for “broader consultations”, political analysts said, Alvi was seeking a role for main opposition leader Imran Khan, the former prime minister who was voted out in April and has since campaigned for early elections.

Alvi was elected president during Khan’s tenure and belongs to Khan’s PTI. However, he said in his interview that he had abandoned his political affiliation. However, he delayed and was reluctant to swear in the new government in April this year.

Alvi is known to hold meetings of various stakeholders and according to media reports he instigated one between Khan and General Bajwa. He claimed that these were his “efforts in a personal capacity”. After this meeting, according to media reports, Khan toned down his attacks on the military, especially the personal attacks on Bajwa.

Khan calls for a snap poll and assumes he will win it. He wants to be the one to choose Bajwa’s successor. Anyone but him – he calls the current government “thieves” – would have chosen one of the “corrupt” generals to suit political ends.

Although it is said to be divided in its support of Khan, against Shehbaz Sharif’s government, the military leadership is upset with Khan for slandering senior serving officers.

Bajwa confirmed last week that he would retire when his three-year extended term ends next month and that he did not want a second extension. Khan, however, suggested that Bajwa should remain in office until the elections are over. This effectively means giving him another extension. This was after he had a ‘secret’ meeting with Bajwa at Alvi’s instigation.

Even without the president’s initiatives, the post and personality of the next army chief have become as controversial as ever and part of the political tug-of-war.

Analysts say the army, which backed Khan in 2018, is unable to rein him in but does not know how to solve political problems as the country faces a deep economic crisis.

While Defense Minister Khawaja Asif announced that the selection of the next chief would take place this month, Khan objected and called for a “Long March”, a street protest. Media speculation now is that the government, which has started the selection process, may announce the name before the Long March.

Expressing concerns about the prospects for the Long March, Najam Sethi wrote in an editorial in The Friday Times (October 11): “What if the confrontation in Islamabad leads to blood on the streets? What if the civil strife sparked by the PTI spreads to other parts of the country? Given the poor state of the economy and the devastation caused by the floods, will General Bajwa stand by and allow the country to sink into chaos and anarchy?”

Pakistan’s past record in such situations is the military seizing power three times.


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