ISLAMABAD: Besieged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been assured by the country’s military there will be no coup, but in return he must “share space with the army”, according to a government source who was privy to recent talks between the two sides.
Last week, as tens of thousands of protesters advanced on the capital to demand his resignation, Nawaz dispatched two emissaries to consult with the army chief. He wanted to know if the military was quietly engineering the twin protest movements by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan and activist cleric Tahirul Qadri, or if, perhaps, it was preparing to stage a coup. According to a government insider with a first-hand account of the meeting, Nawaz’s envoys returned with good news and bad: there will be no coup but if he wants his government to survive, from now on it will have to share space with the army.
The army’s media wing declined to comment on the meeting. Military spokesman General Asim Bajwa tweeted a reminder to protesters to respect government institutions and called for “meaningful dialogue” to resolve the crisis. Even if, as seems likely, the Khan and Qadri protests eventually fizzle out due to a lack of overt support from the military, the prime minister will emerge weakened from the crisis in coup-prone Pakistan.
Nawaz may have to be subservient to the generals on issues he wanted to handle himself - from the fight against the Taliban to relations with arch foe India and Pakistan’s role in neighbouring, post-NATO Afghanistan. “The biggest loser will be Nawaz, cut down to size both by puny political rivals and the powerful army,” said a government minister who asked not to be named. “From this moment on, he’ll always be looking over his shoulder.” A year ago, few would have predicted that Nawaz would be in such trouble: back then, he had just swept to power for a third time in a milestone poll that marked nuclear-armed Pakistan’s first transition from one elected government to another.
But in the months that followed, Nawaz moved to enhance the clout of the civilian government in the country. He irked the generals by putting former military dictator Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason. Nawaz also opposed a military offensive to crush Taliban insurgents, sided with a media group that had accused the military of shooting one of its journalists and sought reconciliation with India.
Sources in Nawaz government said that, with civilian-military relations in such bad shape, Nawaz suspected that the street protests to unseat him were being manipulated from behind the scenes by the army. He also feared that, if the agitations turned violent, the army would exploit the situation to seize power for itself. However, the two close aides who went to see army chief Raheel Sharif in the garrison town of Rawalpindi last Wednesday were told that the military had no intention of intervening.
“The military does not intend to carry out a coup but ... if the government wants to get through its many problems and the four remaining years of its term, it has to share space with the army,” said the insider, summing up the message they were given. “Sharing space” is a familiar euphemism for civilian governments focusing narrowly on domestic political affairs and leaving security and strategic policy to the army. The fact that the military is back in the driving seat will make it harder for Nawaz to deliver the rapprochement with India that he promised when he won the election last year.
“Thinking that Imran could be a game-changer, Nawaz has conceded the maximum to the army,” a Nawaz aide said. “From a czar-like prime minister, they (the army) have reduced him to a deputy commissioner-type character who will deal with the day-to-day running of the country while they take care of the important stuff like Afghanistan and India.
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