Saturday, August 30, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 31, 2014

Of coups, soft and hard The furore over who ‘invited’ the military to ‘facilitate’, ‘mediate’, ‘be a guarantor’ (take your pick) in the ongoing impasse attending the government-PTI/PAT confrontation may have grabbed the attention of the media (particularly electronic) and public for at least 24 hours, but it can only be seen as a storm in a teacup against the bigger issues involved. Whether the government (according to the ISPR clarification) or the PTI/PAT (according to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the floor of the National Assembly) requested COAS General Raheel Sharif to intervene in the standoff and use his good offices to find a solution, this latest episode in the war of nerves playing out in D-Chowk, Islamabad and elsewhere points to some obvious and some not so obvious realities. Not many will buy the argument that if the military decides things have gone on too long in the sit-in, it is not in a position to ‘persuade’ either or both sides to call it a day. The controversial ‘request’ has set off a storm of protest in parliament, first and foremost from Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah of the PPP and then others, the former uncharacteristically thundering on the floor of the house that the prime minister must stand firm in defence of the constitution and democracy. He was harshly critical of the invitation to the military, howsoever well intentioned or desperate, to intervene in the crisis. The concern on the part of the 11 parties who have been standing with the government in this situation is understandable in the light of our history. Pakistan has had more than its share of direct and indirect military interventions, coups and manipulation behind the scenes. Perhaps the real change we are witnessing is that Pakistani society today may be less tolerant of any attempt at a ‘hard’ coup (a military takeover), the judiciary may not be complicit in legitimizing it as in the past, the media would probably make life hard for any such adventure, and international opinion and the western powers would look askance. The difficulties of running Pakistan today are also immense. Without legitimacy or popular support, it may be difficult for any dispensation, irrespective of the manner of its ascent to power, to manage the country when it is beset with enormous problems of terrorism and the economy’s slide, amongst others. However, a ‘soft’ coup, which involves the surrender of policy space by the civilian elected government to the military, as is being speculated may be the price Nawaz Sharif has to pay to stay in power, is something the forces that support democracy and constitutionalism may not even become aware of before it is too late to reverse. Two areas of security, defence and foreign policy that seem up for grabs are the stance on Afghanistan as it nears endgame, and relations with India. The former involves reversing this government’s ‘hands off’ stance to allow an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led political process find resolution of that unfortunate country’s future after the western forces leave. The latter conditions improvement in relations with New Delhi and economic cooperation on progress in the Kashmir dispute. In addition, a troubled area in the civil-military relationship is the issue of Musharraf’s trial for treason. On all three, the military is today placed in a position to demand concessions from the government. Nawaz Sharif may decide to concede these areas in order to live to fight another day. But such a denouement would once again immeasurably weaken the hoped for continuation of democracy and serve as a reminder that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same in Pakistan.

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