In most countries, the appointment of a new army chief does not warrant particular media or public attention. In Pakistan, the situation is somewhat different. And, this time around, the uncertainty, conjectures, rumours and doubts rose to a whole new level as the ‘November appointment’ became the site of intense contestation and unfortunate politicking. All that is finally done and dusted as President Arif Alvi put his signatures on the summary sent to him by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, appointing Lt-Gen Asim Munir as the new chief of army staff, and Lt-Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. After a nail-biting few days of all manner of speculation, the final transition proved to be less combative than was feared. The uncertainty had mainly been caused by a visibly disgruntled Imran Khan making statements a few days back about not accepting anyone appointed by the current prime minister, leading to rumours that the PTI would use President Alvi to refuse to sign the summary, thereby throwing the country into a constitutional and political lurch. The nation waited with bated breath as the president flew to Lahore to meet with Imran Khan. It was somewhat unclear why this meeting was necessary, given that Alvi is the president of a country and not of one single party. There was little alternative available to the president but to sign the summary; he could have at best delayed it by a few weeks. But better sense seems to have prevailed in the PTI camp and it is a good omen that the party is on board and there is no controversy or sense of conspiracy surrounding the appointment of the military heads of the country.
For the past few months now, it has been quite clear that the PTI had been angling for a say in the appointment of the new COAS, something that made little sense constitutionally or per tradition. Political observers continued to also see Imran’s ‘long march’ more as a pressure tactic regarding the appointment than about politics. It is of some relief that saner elements in his party were able to convince him not to play with fire by creating yet another constitutional crisis. Last year, he had done the same in the appointment of the DG ISI – only to eventually fail. Delaying these appointments would have only meant yet another blow to the already frail democratic system in the country. In this sense, the seal of approval from all stakeholders is welcome and will hopefully help the country avoid further divide and instability as it struggles to return to a more steady footing. If this is to happen, we may see some improvement in the political and economic unease that has thrown Pakistan into a spiral of doubts and divisions.
The democratic system should be a red line for all political parties. Perhaps Imran has learnt that in politics, some sense of order, and a willingness to follow constitutional norms, is necessary. Now that things have settled down, it is important that all political parties and state institutions play their constitutional roles and chalk out a new way forward. Political parties need to finally sit together, sign a new charter of democracy, form a consensus on the importance of making such appointments part of the regular and normal process instead of using them to remain politically relevant, and agree to stop trying to politicize apolitical institutions. It is important for the system to heal now and for a much-needed political course correction. If elections are the demand, talk to each other instead of asking for interventions from the establishment. If an institution is claiming neutrality, welcome it. If democracy is really what political parties intend to uphold, then do it without being propped up by apolitical forces. The new chief takes over a country badly in need of healing. Outgoing army chief General Bajwa has clearly said that the military will not play any political role now. It is now on the institution to ensure this is upheld as policy. Let this be the new normal.