PAKISTAN Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief and former prime minister Imran Khan stirred up a hornet’s nest when he said the present government did not have the mandate to appoint a new army chief and asked that the decision be put off until a new elected government is in place. He later warned of issuing a “final call” to bring down the ruling coalition by the end of this month unless snap polls were announced.

Mr Khan didn’t explain if he was suggesting another extension to the army chief’s tenure till the next polls, but said his “lawyers have suggested there may be a provision in the law that the incumbent can continue beyond his term completion in November” while elections are announced immediately and the incoming government appoints a new chief.

That the former prime minister, who has been on the roads for over five months to build pressure on both the establishment and the ruling coalition, appears desperate for an election shows that the stakes are quite high for his party following its ouster, allegedly through a foreign-backed conspiracy.

The government is all set to appoint a successor to Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose second three-year term as army chief ends in November.

Many circles are still guessing as to what options Mr Khan has to force his will on the government — and by extension the military establishment, and if he could succeed in getting what he wants. Because so far, he hasn’t had much luck. Will it be a protest call for shutting down the country, another long march on Islamabad or dissolution of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies?

About his street power, Mr Khan says the public, hit hard by price hikes and inflated power bills, has reached the boiling point and on his call, they would take to the streets and bring the government to a standstill. He has also threatened, on multiple occasions, to reveal the names of those who had hatched the regime change conspiracy against his government.

PTI Secretary General Asad Umer endorses his leader’s viewpoint that an “imported government” must not be allowed to decide the appointment of a new army chief. “[It] should be made by a public-mandated government,” he maintains. “The economy is nose-diving and any delay in general elections can create a dreadful situation for the economy as well as the people.”

PTI Senator Ejaz Chaudhry also says Imran Khan’s army chief-related statements can be understood by only those who see them in the context of his demand for snap polls. “The PDM’s weak government cannot take the major decision of appointing an army chief, as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will always need to consult the leaders of the multi-party coalition,” he commented.

After the PTI got a massive ego boost following a smashing victory in the July 17 by-elections in Punjab, analysts say the party’s popularity — based on which it is desperate for fresh elections — will yet again be tested in the forthcoming by-polls scheduled for Oct 16. This comes at a time when the multi-party ruling coalition in the centre is facing strong criticism over its failure to stabilise the economy and provide relief to the masses.

The PTI also knows well it won’t be able to assert much if a new army chief is appointed with the party chairman out of the power corridors. In the current situation, however, Imran Khan can’t do much to impact the all-important appointment due in the next few weeks.

Or so it seems.

Editorial: Imran's recent statements on COAS appointment appear to be an attempt to appease the military

Political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi says the government can appoint the army chief following the standard procedure — a panel of three or five top generals is recommended by the incumbent chief along with their profiles through the defence ministry. “The prime minister can give his opinion on the panelists, but cannot change the order of recommendation,” he says.

Mr Rizvi also believes Imran Khan’s popularity won’t be affected as he was continuously building pressure and criticising the incumbent government for failing to streamline economic matters. “Imran Khan is a winner in popular politics, but faces resistance when he deals with state institutions,” he stresses.

Another analyst says the PTI chief is inperpetual campaign mode and the public doesn’t question him or his performance during his three-and-a-half-year stint in power. People aren’t even questioning the performance of PTI governments in Punjab and KP, knowing well that the army chief’s appointment or removal of the chief election commissioner will not reduce their utility bills.

Some analysts, however, doubt the success of the former premier’s plan for a possible mass protest or long march in the wake of the catastrophic floods that have inflicted destruction in all four provinces, but mainly in Balochistan and Sindh. “A mass protest call even by the end of this month can cause Imran Khan a public relations disaster because many are busy in relief activities for flood affectees,” an analyst said.

About Imran’s hints that the party was mulling dissolution of the PTI-led Punjab and KP governments, the analyst asserts the party will never go ahead with it as it knows that only intact provincial governments can pester the centre, referring to the IMF letter episode.

Chairmanof the Punjab government’s taskforce on governance reforms and monitoring Hasaan Khawar asserts the “weak coalition government” in the centre cannot drive the country out of the plethora of problems – political, constitutional, economic.

He says Imran Khan has three options and is choosing to fight for a larger cause. “Khan can sit back, enjoy the rule in Punjab and KP and let the PDM government lose its popularity and earn public hatred every passing day, but he stresses the country cannot afford the ‘do nothing mode’.”

Since the incumbent government apparently has no plan of action, Khan eventually, as a second option, has suggested holding early general elections to form a strong public-mandated political government to ensure political and economic stability with the capability for taking strong decisions. He has also offered to talk to everyone on every issue once the general elections are announced.

“If the incumbent PDM government and people at the helm of affairs do not accept even this implementable plan, the last option left with Khan is to take to the streets and push the government to announce fresh polls.”

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2022

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