Islamabad - The delegation-level meeting of former president Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday was largely meant for political consumption. But their 35-minute one-on-one meeting was understandably more related to the deepening friction in the civil-military relations. This friction came to public notice when Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif in a recent statement vowed to protect resolutely the prestige and institutional pride of the Pakistan Army at all costs.
Background discussions and interviews with political leaders suggest that the meeting of the two major political players was meant to show their total commitment to democracy. Both the leaders have sent a loud and clear message to the military establishment to refrain from any overt or covert ambition. Some have interpreted this meeting as pre-emptive posturing of the two political giants while others believe it (the meeting) has prevented the military establishment from dividing the political forces, something that ultimately creates trouble for the government. They presumed, unlike in the past, this meeting has left the military establishment with very limited space to divide the ruling political elite. They were of the view that it has also killed any proposition to keep the ruling PML-N under pressure by cobbling up a grand opposition alliance over issues.
“We are ready to join democratic forces against non-democratic forces. But we will not join any alliance to destabilise the democratic system itself,” says spokesperson for the former president and PPP leader Senator Farhatullah Babar. This makes clear that the PPP would not leave the ruling PML-N in the lurch in any such eventuality. These assertions also become more significant in view of PPP’s political stake in the system with its government in the Sindh province.
Interestingly, the Zardari-Nawaz meeting has also sent a clear message to the smaller opposition parties, especially Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan, to be careful because the PTI too has a stake in the democratic dispensation with its government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Jamaat-i-Islami is working as its junior coalition partner. Similarly, the ANP would not support at any stage any move aimed at destabilising the democratic dispensation and so is the case with the JUI-F – thus leaving the MQM and the PML-Q in a vulnerable position – even if they toe the establishment’s line, they would not be effective to serve the purpose. PTI Information Secretary and MNA Dr Shireen Mazari says the notion of having a grand opposition alliance does not seem likely but her party does come together with other opposition parties on issues of national importance.
Thus, after this meeting none of the opposition parties would be able to support destabilisation of the democratic dispensation even if some of them deemed it essential. Any proposition, if at all applied, to dethrone the government of Prime Minister Sharif would not work, thus leaving the divided opposition with only one option to cooperate with each other on issue-to-issue basis.
On the other hand, the military establishment has its own list of grievances against the government of PML-N. Many believed that initially tension started between the two institutions over the National Security Policy formulation by the government as the military establishment had reservations on various issues. The issue of missing persons also added to tension when Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif ordered registration of FIRs against two men of Pakistan Army. Similarly, the military establishment also has some reservations over foreign policy issues. This was the precise reason for the government to withhold its decision of granting MNF status to India.
But these reservations led to a serious friction over the manner the Pakistan Army was subjected to media trial over the treason trial of former Chief of Army Staff General (r) Pervez Musharraf. This was the moment when Army Chief General Raheel Sharif chose to react with a policy statement. Many retired and serving senior army officers strongly believed that the Pakistan Army was not at all against the rule of law in the country but its media bashing over Musharraf’s treason trial had heightened institutional tension.
“This rift, if continues at a time when we have so many threats, is bad for the nation and bodes ill for democracy which is essential for the well being of the country; therefore inter-institutional issues should be dealt with internally and not publicly through statements to the media,” warns Dr Mazari. Considering far-reaching implications of the growing inter-institutional friction, the prime minister should take appropriate steps to resolve differences with Army Chief General Raheel Sharif without wasting a moment. According to the retired senior army officials, the root cause of inter-institutional friction was Musharraf’s media trial and the government’s highhandedness.
“Both should talk it out and refrain from messaging through media,” military’s former chief spokesperson Major General Ather Abbas said, arguing that there should be no media trial of the Pakistan Army as well as General Musharraf, and let the court decide the matter. In the larger interest of democracy and wellbeing of the country and the people, it is imperative these differences should be resolved without further delay. And let the prime minister take the initiative before the tension escalates to a point of no return.