The public statement by Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif defending the army’s honor and dignity during a time of internal and external challenges to Pakistan has caused a wave of criticisms by the opposition parties. The Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah has stated that the country cannot afford a dictatorship and a judiciary that “accidentally takes the life of an individual”.
The dissatisfaction exhibited by the Pakistan National Party, one of the main political opponents to the ruling party, is caused by several issues: the premier’s authoritarian methods; ignoring the opinion of the opposition in the National Assembly; the desire to review the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (2010), which grants the provinces significant powers; the politics of Punjab-izing the country (extensive infrastructure investment projects are implemented primarily in the Sharif clan’s home Punjab province) and others.
The Pakistan National Party saw their own pillar of support within the statement made by General Raheel Sharif and, at the same time, a warning to the premier and his entourage. However, they did not openly confront the Pakistan Muslim League (N). In answering the question of whether his party was with the army or with the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah stated that “his party is with the masses”. The Pakistan National Party used the strain in the relations between the generals and the ruling administration to their own advantage; for example, within a very short period of time, they were able to push to have joint discussions of the draft Protection of Pakistan Bill in the National Assembly, which is aimed at reassessing provincial rights. It is very rare that Pakistani military make such public statements. On November 5, 2012, then Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “had warned detractors of military against undermining the institution and behaving as the ‘sole arbiters’ of national interest”.
General Raheel Sharif’s statement also caused a mix of responses within the military. A formula to normalize the relations between the generals and the ruling civil administration was offered by former Army Chief and retired General Mirza Aslam Beg (August 1988 – August 1991), “1. The criminal trial accusing General Pervez Musharraf of high treason must be stopped and the General needs to be allowed to leave the country. 2. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority shall guarantee that no television channel will broadcast any statements that undermine the army’s prestige. 3. Ministers and politicians should be forbidden from publicly criticizing the army and making statements against people who have defended this country with their own life”. Mirza Beg believes that the “situation will normalize in no time if the government acted in light of his suggestions. Otherwise, the generals will be doing the same thing that was done by General El-Sisi in Egypt.” The former Chief of Army Staff is certain that the country’s constitution “would not be able to block a military intervention if the rulers do not give the army its due respect”. The statement suggesting the censorship of the media with respect to army activities has led to contradicting opinions in society.
The “culprit” behind these tensions was soon found and the conflict was resolved before it could heat up further. The Ministry of Defense sent a written notice to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) administration stating that the Geo News channel has breached PEMRA provisions by broadcasting a report that was offensive to government institutions, bringing bad publicity to the ISI, by which the channel damaged national interests; the administration was urged to shut the channel down and revoke its license. On April 22, 2014, the regulatory authority demanded an answer from the channel before May 6, 2014.
Nawaz Sharif did not externally show any fear after General Raheel Sharif’s statement, however, he was quick to secure support from the opposition and met with his long-time main political opponent Asif Ali Zardari. His clan heads the Pakistan National Party which holds a majority in the upper house of parliament. However, the Pakistan National Party, in trying to avoid any conflicts with the military, was also quick to state that “It should be seen as the democratic forces standing united to strengthen institutions. It should not be taken as against an institution or institutions.”
Many people in Pakistan believe that the crisis in the relations between the generals and the civil administration will not be developing along the route of curtailing democratic gains. Nawaz Sharif’s stance also heavily influences the resolution of this crisis. Will he retire Defense Minister Khawaja Asif and instead hand the post over to the army leadership or will he continue on his present course? Nawaz Sharif is also not very keen on confrontations. At the invitation of the general’s office, the Prime Minister arrived to the PNS Akram military base where he stated that the political and military leaders are working jointly to make Pakistan a developed, safe and peaceful country: “we will work jointly to overcome the challenges being faced by the country”.
It would seem that the civil administration and the generals will, in the future, take steps to avoid confrontation. As of today, the open opposition between the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff has been neutralized. However, the military has issued a warning and the army still retains the means to influence the civil administration.
Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Pakistan at the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.