Two issues hog the waves. Who will appoint the new army chief in November and when general elections will be held.
The PDM government insists, rightly, that it is the constitutional prerogative of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to appoint the next army chief, or extend the tenure of the the incumbent, in November 2022. It also expects to complete its tenure until August next year. But Imran Khan says that elections must be held immediately, in any case no later than March 2023, and the army chief should be appointed by the prime minister of the next government – which he assumes will be his -- after the elections because any army chief appointed by “imported crooks” will be detrimental to the interests of the country. This means that the National Assembly must be dissolved in the next two months before November so that a caretaker regime can be installed. But, he says, the caretakers must “defer” the decision to appoint the army chief to the next elected prime minister which in effect means an extension of the tenure of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, even though he is against the idea of giving a second extension to him.
This is an interesting development. Until recently Imran Khan was targeting General Bajwa as an “evil neutral”. Now he is proposing to extend his tenure until after the next elections, suggesting a revival of some degree of tactical reconciliation.
On the other side, the PDM is bracing for political climate change. The PMLN’s Khwaja Saad Rafique has bemoaned the “pressure” on the government to call early general elections and is demanding a “level playing field”. How is that possible, one may wonder, when the PDM assumed office on the “understanding” with the Miltablishment that it would sign off on the harsh IMF program in the “national interest” and would not have to face the angry electorate until late next year by when it would have had time to turn the economy around and win back support of the voter? Indeed, given the angry voter blowback against the PDM, an early election would enable the PTI to sweep into government and bury the PDM.
In one critical way we have turned full circle. The PDM launched its bid to dethrone Imran Khan early this year because it didn’t want him to appoint his “favourite” general as army chief in November. The fear was that together they would rig the next elections and cling to power for another five years at least. The irony is that, once again, the debate now hinges on who will appoint the next chief and whose “favourite” he will be, even though the historical record proves that any army chief is ultimately “his own man”, or his institution’s man, regardless of who “favoured” him to the powerful coveted post in the first place.
Imran Khan is threatening to call another long march next month to push the PDM government out. But he knows that without Miltablishment backing it won’t succeed. Meanwhile, the PDM government has dug its heels in because a “level playing field” is nowhere in sight. Its leader, Nawaz Sharif, is in exile, his trumped-up convictions show no sign of being swiftly overturned even as there is a palpable go-slow on the several “disqualification” cases against Imran Khan. Meanwhile, by naming names on social media, Khan’s supporters have made several three star generals “controversial” because they are not among Khan’s presumed “favourites”, by way of eliminating from the line-up to be the next army chief.
The constitutional route is for the constitutionally empowered Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to appoint the next army chief in November and continue to rule until next August when scheduled elections are held. If Khan tries to use popular force to prematurely oust Shehbaz Sharif, the latter has the constitutional right to call the army to assist civil power to stop this from happening. But the constitution has been torn to shreds over the years by generals, judges and politicians. Brute power rules the day. The Miltablishment calls the shots. Thus, in one form or another, it will thrust another hybrid “solution” on us and we will lurch to another crisis sooner or later.
It is extraordinary that the personal ambitions, passions and feuds of two men, one of whom is a past benefactor of the other, control the fate of this hapless nation of 240 million that is drowning in debt and despair. For how long will we, the people, also stand and serve? Is the natural calamity that has struck the nation low a harbinger of “regime change” that will sow chaos and disorder in the land?