Pakistan names new army chief as political turmoil over military influence deepens

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 in his relentless call for snap elections. 

The rally planned for Saturday coincides with a habitually tense transition that, by law, comes every three years in Pakistan: the appointment of a new army chief, the most powerful figure in the country which has a nuclear arsenal and constant tension with its neighbours.

On Thursday, the current government, a multi-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 Pakistani military’s role in politics. 

Pakistan is also currently reeling from a flailing economy and the effects of historic, apocalyptic flooding that recently left a third of the country underwater, affecting more than 33 million people

A man with glasses and a moustache wearing a military uniform sits across a desk from a balding man wearing a face mask.
In this photo released by Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s Office, newly appointed army chief Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir, left, meets with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif in Islamabad on Thursday after being named head of the country’s military, ending months of speculation. (Pakistan’s Prime Minister Office/The Associated Press)

Khan’s criticism makes transition volatile

Khan, a former cricket hero turned populist politician, has railed against the army, consistently accusing its leader of conspiring with his political rivals and the United States to orchestrate his ouster by a no-confidence vote in Parliament last April — a charge both Pakistan’s military and Washington have called baseless. 

Still, the criticism has chipped away at the army’s reputation domestically, and it means this transition is particularly volatile, with higher than usual stakes for the country’s fragile democracy, according to analysts. 

“It’s such a massive event because the army has inordinate powers in Pakistan,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a senior fellow and founder at Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab.

“There isn’t really a huge disparity over how Pakistan should conduct its relations with the rest of the world,” continued Zaidi, who expects foreign policy and how the country handles its strained relationship with neighbouring India to remain stable under the new chief. Domestic politics, however, are another matter.

“The disagreements are all about who should run Pakistan,” he told CBC News. 

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

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

Outgoing chief insists army won’t meddle 

Munir, the new head of the army, is the most senior ranking general aside from the one he is replacing.

He formerly served as the head of Pakistan’s intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but was removed as ISI chief in 2019 after clashing with Khan, then the prime minister. 

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 army is widely assumed to be manipulating politics behind the scenes. 

In his final public speech earlier this week, outgoing army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa acknowledged that the army’s “unconstitutional” and decades-long interference in politics has led to increased criticism. 

Still, Bajwa insisted the army had chosen in February of this year to no longer meddle in Pakistani politics, and he stated that senior military leaders were “strictly adamant” that the policy of non-interference would remain going forward.

Experts, though, 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 been drawing large crowds to his anti-government marches demanding early elections before he was shot in the foot by a gunman earlier this month. He will rejoin the rally this weekend near the capital of Islamabad. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts predict political instability

“Many will find that difficult to believe because ultimately, the reason that Khan lost power in April is that he had fallen out with the military,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., in an email to CBC News. 

“The outlook for Pakistan is political instability until the next election, whenever it is held.” 

Khan would like elections to be held immediately, as he accuses his political opponents of corruption and elitism. The current government is refusing to bend from its intention to hold elections as scheduled, no earlier than August 2023.

“The government has lost political capital over the last seven months and is hoping to regain it before the next election through some kind of an economic turnaround, which requires time,” Afzal said. 

That loss of political capital has been hammered home by the passionate droves of supporters that Khan commands. 

Khan’s base, which includes many younger Pakistanis like this man attending an Oct. 28 rally in Lahore, are passionate in their demands for new elections and their disdain for the current government. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters )

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

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

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

An assassination attempt that saw Khan shot in the foot in early November forced him away from what his supporters call his “real freedom” rally for several weeks while he recovered. 

WATCH | The assassination attempt on Imran Khan: 

Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan wounded in gun attack

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

The former leader is now returning just as the army chief is set to take over.

Analysts see more instability on the horizon. 

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

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