KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces the daunting decision of choosing a new army chief, knowing that a poor choice could spell doom for the country’s fledgling democracy, while a wise choice would be no guarantee that the military won’t topple the civilian leadership sometime in the future, as it has so many times before.
Political analysts say there’s precious little evidence that Pakistan’s generals have embraced democracy or abandoned ambitions to impose a fifth junta, even though the military allowed the current civilian government to take over from the last elected one – the first time in Pakistani history that one elected government had served out its term and been followed by another.
Whether that’s a permanent change in the military’s outlook is much debated here, and it makes Sharif’s decision on who’ll replace the army chief – always a sensitive appointment – that much more crucial.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced earlier this month that he’d retire in November after six years in the job. During that stint, Kayani oversaw a 2008 general election that ushered in Pakistan’s third attempt at democracy since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Last May, the country saw an elected administration complete a five-year term for the first time, hold its most transparent election to date and transfer power to a new elected government.
Few Pakistani analysts give Kayani credit for being a champion of democracy. Instead, he’s viewed as a shrewd politician who saw wisdom in exerting the army’s political writ behind the country’s democratic facade. Indeed, that method of intervention has come to be called the “Kayani model” by politicians and analysts, as well as within the military.
“To some extent, it’s true that Kayani broke the pattern of military intervention, and preferred behind-the-scenes pursuance of closely watched policy prerogatives, particularly relations with the U.S. and (regional foe) India,” said Nadeem Malik, an analyst based in Islamabad.
“His analysis was that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring made direct military rule unfeasible and potentially very bad for Pakistan.”
Nor do the military and its allies in the civilian bureaucracy – together, they form Pakistan’s so-called establishment – have much respect for Sharif, who in two previous terms in office, during the 1990s, clashed with army chiefs, much to his detriment.
The first time, in 1993, his government was dismissed by a pro-establishment president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The second time, in 1999, he attempted to replace Gen. Pervez Musharraf with a handpicked general while Musharraf was on a working trip in Sri Lanka, trying to prevent the airliner in which he was traveling home from landing in Pakistan. That sparked a counter-coup and eight years of military rule by Musharraf.
“The military and bureaucracy do not like Sharif one bit. In private conversation, they portray him as a glutton and a simpleton incapable of governing,” said Aamir Ghauri, a political analyst based in Lahore, the political heartland of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
“That makes Sharif’s choice of army chief the biggest challenge of his career to date. If his choice ignores the career seniority of top generals, it would be seen as a swipe at the army, and Sharif will become that much easier to get rid of. His only salvation is to uphold seniority.”
The most senior officer is Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam, the army’s chief of logistics, followed by Lt. Gen. Rashad Mahmood, the chief of general staff. Both could get four-star appointments if Sharif chooses one of them as the army chief and the other as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – nominally a more senior, albeit largely ceremonial, position.
Little is known about either candidate’s politics, only that they rose through the officer ranks during Musharraf’s rule and were promoted as top commanders by Kayani.
As Kayani demonstrated after becoming army chief, he was more nationalistic and less pro-U.S. than his predecessor. Similarly, the new chief’s policies are unlikely to become apparent until he’s established himself in the job, probably six months or so after Kayani’s retirement, the analysts said.
Speaking Saturday at a graduation ceremony for newly commissioned officers, Kayani advised his successor-to-be to continue support for democracy.
“It is important that the military leadership in future also continues to play its unreserved role for strengthening of the democratic system,” he said at the ceremony, whose date coincided with the 14th anniversary of the army’s last takeover.
The consensus among political analysts is that Pakistan’s democracy has evolved rapidly since its restart in 2008, making military intervention a far less viable prospect than before. The judiciary is far more independent than it once was, and the explosion of live cable news channels has created a new power center. Musharraf was forced from power largely because he tried to emasculate the judiciary, which was backed by the cable channels. Since 2008, the two institutions have only grown in power, while social media have emerged as a potent force for democracy, motivating young people and the traditionally democracy-skeptical middle class to vote in unprecedented numbers in the May general election.
Analysts and politicians alike remain wary, nonetheless. They fear that Sharif might revert to the whimsical, authoritarian style he demonstrated in his second term as prime minister, from 1997 to 1999, when he pursued vendettas against the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, and sacked one army chief and attempted to get rid of a second, leading to the October 1999 coup d’etat staged by Musharraf. Similar behavior now could have similar consequences, they said.
"Ultimately, Sharif’s biggest test will be how he governs himself," said Ghauri, the Lahore-based analyst.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.