Pakistan appoints new army chief as political unrest over military influence escalates

As November draws to a close, massive crowds are expected to descend on Pakistan’s capital Islamabad and its twin city Rawalpindi, cheering on charismatic former Prime Minister Imran Khan who was ousted from power last April, and joining his unrelenting plea in early elections.

The rally scheduled for Saturday coincides with a usually tense transition that by law takes place every three years in Pakistan: the appointment of a new army chief, the most powerful figure in the country who has a nuclear arsenal and constant tensions with its neighbours.

On Thursday, the current government, a cross-party coalition led by Shehbaz Sharif, ended weeks of intense speculation by appointing Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir to the post. The decision comes at a time of fierce debate over the role of the Pakistani military in politics.

Pakistan is also currently reeling from a struggling economy and the effects of historic and apocalyptic floods which recently left a third of the country under water, affecting more than 33 million people.

In this handout photo released by the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office, new army chief Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir, left, meets Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif in Islamabad on Thursday after being appointed head of the Pakistani army country, ending months of speculation. (Office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan/Associated Press)

Khan’s criticism makes transition volatile

Khan, a former cricketer hero turned populist politician, has railed against the military, constantly accusing his leader of conspiring with political rivals and the United States to orchestrate his ousting through a vote of no confidence in Parliament last April – an accusation both the Pakistani military and Washington have called baseless.

Still, criticism has shaken the military’s reputation domestically, and that means this transition is particularly volatile, with higher than usual stakes for the country’s fragile democracy, analysts say.

“It’s such a massive event because the military has outsized powers in Pakistan,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, senior researcher and founder of the Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab.

“There is not really a big disparity on how Pakistan should conduct its relations with the rest of the world,” continued Zaidi, who expects foreign policy and the way the country manages its strained relations with neighboring India remain stable under the new leader. Domestic politics, however, is another matter.

“The disagreements are over who should lead Pakistan,” he told CBC News.

“So the biggest question for the new army chief will be: should the army significantly withdraw from civilian affairs, or should it redouble its efforts and continue to try to broker peace between the warring political factions such as Imran Khan and the current administration.”

Two men watch several televisions broadcasting Pakistani news programs.
Munir is the country’s former spymaster and his new role as army chief is a post long considered the real seat of power in the nuclear-armed nation of 220 million. (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

Outgoing leader insists army won’t interfere

Munir, the new army chief, is the highest-ranking general apart from the one he replaces.

He previously headed Pakistan’s intelligence wing, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but was removed as ISI chief in 2019 after a clash with then-prime minister Khan.

Pakistan’s military, with its outsized influence, has seized power and imposed martial law three times since the country gained independence 75 years ago. Even when civilian governments are in power, the military is widely expected to manipulate politics behind the scenes.

In his final public address earlier this week, outgoing army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa acknowledged that the army’s decades-long “unconstitutional” interference in politics had sparked more in addition to reviews.

Still, Bajwa insisted that the military had opted out in February this year to no longer meddle in Pakistani politics, and he said senior military officials were “strictly adamant” that the policy of non-interference would continue.

Experts, however, are highly skeptical.

Huge crowds of people waving flags surround vehicles during a political rally.
Khan, who has been relentless in his criticism of the military, had drawn large crowds on his anti-government marches demanding a snap election before he was shot in the foot by a gunman earlier this month. He will join the rally this weekend near the capital Islamabad. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts predict political instability

“Many will find this hard to believe because at the end of the day the reason Khan lost power in April was because he fell out with the military,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow with the policy program from the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, in an email to CBC News.

“The outlook for Pakistan is political instability until the next elections, however they take place.”

Khan would like elections to be held immediately, as he accuses his political opponents of corruption and elitism. The current government refuses to give up on its intention to hold elections as planned, at the earliest in August 2023.

“The government has lost political capital over the past seven months and hopes to recover it before the next election through some kind of economic recovery, which takes time,” Afzal said.

This loss of political capital was hammered home by the passionate crowds of supporters that Khan commands.

pakistan politics khan
Khan’s base, which includes many young Pakistanis like this man attending an October 28 rally in Lahore, is passionate about his demands for new elections and his contempt for the current government. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

“This protest is continuing,” one supporter, Malik Qasim Shehzad, told Reuters earlier this month. “God willing, this will continue until Khan’s legitimate demands are met.”

Zaidi sees Khan as the most popular politician in Pakistan, although he thinks support for the leader is lower than his base would like to think.

“There is no demographic group in the country where he doesn’t have support,” Zaidi said. “He’s a popular leader nationally in a way that, really, Pakistan hasn’t had in a while.”

An assassination attempt in which Khan was shot in the foot in early November forced him away from what his supporters call his “true freedom” rally for several weeks while he restore.

WATCH | The assassination attempt on Imran Khan:

Khan shot Pakistan NOV3 copy.jpg?crop=1

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan injured by gunshot

A gunman opened fire on a container truck in Pakistan carrying the country’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, injuring him slightly. The alleged shooter was arrested at the scene.

The former leader now returns just as the army leader is about to take over.

Analysts see more instability on the horizon.

According to Zaidi, the country “will continue to muddle through and falter from one economic and political crisis to the next.”


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