Political maelstrom over Pakistan Army chief’s successor

President Arif Alvi is the newest entrant in the raging debate over who should be the next army chief, when and how, confusing and compounding an already murky situation.
President Arif Alvi
President Arif AlviAFP

ISLAMABAD: In Pakistan, it is said, more seriously than in jest, that political power flows through the barrel of the army's gun.

For the first time, the post and the person of the army chief and his likely successor are fair game. They have actually become a major part of the political conundrum.

President Arif Alvi is the newest entrant in the raging debate over who should be the next army chief, when and how, confusing and compounding an already murky situation. It 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, actually himself, in the decision-making process involving the selection of the next army chief to succeed incumbent, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who, as per schedule, is to retire on November 29 this year.

In an interview with journalist Asma Shirazi on Aaj TV, the President desired that "a summary of the appointment be sent to him after the consultation has been completed", Dawn newspaper reported.

Pakistan's Constitution, however, does not provide for a role for the President who is actually a titular head of a government that follows the parliamentary system and has a government headed by a Prime Minister. It is the incumbent's sole prerogative to tick the name of the officer of his choice from the list sent by the Defence Ministry, or even a general not on that panel.

Alvi on October 10, asked that "broader consultation" on the appointment of the chief of army staff (COAS) was "a must so that a consensus could be developed".

With the call for "broader consultations", political analysts said, Alvi was seeking a role for the principal opposition leader, Imran Khan, the former prime minister voted out in April and who has since been agitating for a snap poll.

Alvi was elected President during Khan's tenure and belongs to Khan's PTI. In his interview, though, he said he had left behind his political affiliation. However, he had delayed and had been reluctant to swear in the incoming government in April this year.

Alvi has been known to hold meetings of various stakeholders and as per media reports, has brought about one between Khan and Gen. Bajwa. He claims these are his "efforts in a personal capacity". After that meeting, media reports say, Khan has lowered his attacks on the military, especially personal attacks on Bajwa.

Khan has been demanding a snap poll and is assuming that he would win it. He wants to be the one to select Bajwa's successor. Anyone other than him - he calls the present government of "thieves" -- would select one of the "corrupt" generals to suit political objectives.

Although said to be divided in its support of Khan, against the Shehbaz Sharif government, the military brass has been upset with Khan for casting aspersions on serving top officers.

Bajwa last week confirmed that he would be retiring when his tenure, with a three-year extension, ends next month and that he does not desire a second extension. Khan has, however, suggested that Bajwa be continued in office till after the elections are completed. This in effect means giving him another extension. This came after he had a "secret" meeting with Bajwa at Alvi's initiative.

Even without the President's initiatives, the post and the persona of the next army chief have become controversial as never before and a part of the political tug-of-war.

Analysts say the army, which backed Khan in 2018, is unable to rein him in, but is at a loss how to resolve the political slugging when the country is facing a deep economic crisis.

While Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has announced that the selection of the next chief would be done this month, Khan has opposed it and has called for a "Long March", a street protest. The media speculation now is that the government, which has put the selection process underway, may announce the name prior to the Long March.

Expressing apprehensions over the Long March prospects, Najam Sethi writes in an editorial in The Friday Times (October 11): "What if the confrontation in Islamabad leads to blood on the streets? What if PTI-triggered civil strife spreads to other parts of the country? Given the dismal state of the economy and the devastation caused by the floods, will General Bajwa stand by and allow the country to plunge into chaos and anarchy?"

Pakistan's past record in such situations has been the military seizing power on three occasions.

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