New Power Balance – Zahid Hussain

THE months-long suspense was broken last week by the notso-surprising choice of a dark horse as the country`s new army chief. It was Nawaz Sharif`s way of playing safe and picking a relatively low-profile officer for the most critical and powerful post.

Having been ousted by his handpicked army chief once and given his history of tumultuous relations with all others holding the post during his past two terms, Mr Sharif has become more cautious and unsure.

Hence an unassuming man with no past baggage and lower down in the seniority list was considered a safe bet. GenRaheel Sharif`s appointment signifies a complete break from the Musharraf-era military hierarchy.

Together with a new chief justice at the helm the move has changed the political dynamics of the country, shiftingthe balance of power more towards the civilian government.

But it may prove to be a temporary phenomenon if the Sharif government fails to deliver. It does not take much time for the pendulum of Pakistani politics to swing to the other side. The past bears witness to that.

With the change of guard in the army and a new chief justice about to take over, the transition of all the power centres of the state has been completed. Indeed, this remarkably smooth changeover that started with the transfer of power from one elected government to another marks a huge stride forward for the democratic political process in the country.

With a sizable majority in the National Assembly and his party`s hold on the most powerful province, Nawaz Sharif appears to be comfortably ensconced in the driving seat at least for now with the accompanying change of command in the two major institutions of the state.

A weak and fragmented opposition hardly presents any challenge to the government. But it is Mr Sharif`s performance or rather lack of it that could prove to be his undoing. His absentee government does not inspire much confidence for the future, despite its consolidation of power.

A critical issue is how civil-military relations evolve under the new militaryleadership. The exit of Gen Ashfaq Kayani, who saw two democratic political transitions during his six years in office, lends the issue greater urgency.

The role of the former army chief in making the fragile democratic system work cannot be underestimated.

Although civil-military relations under Gen Kayani may not have been smooth, there was no threat of the military derailing the democratic process.

Seemingly, Mr Sharif got on well with Gen Kayani, but some friction seems to have emerged recently between the civilian administration and the military over the proposed negotiations with the Taliban. The generals appear unhappy with the government policy of placating the militants. The military may not beopposed to talks with the Tehreek-iTaliban Pakistan (TTP), but not on the militants` terms.

The apologetic response of the government over the killing of Maj-Gen Sanaullah Niazi and other recent terrorist attacks carried out by the TTP has added to the misgiving.

The unprecedented condemnation of Jamaat-i-Islami by the ISPR for declaring Hakeemullah Mehsud a martyr demonstrates the growing frustration of the military over the policy of appeasement of militants being pursued by the political parties.

The resentment seems to have been further heightened with a statement by TTP leaders directly targeting the military. In the statement, Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid welcomed the government`s decision not to appoint Gen Haroon Aslam who he has described as the `butcher of Swat` for leading the commando operation in Puchar, the operational base of Mullah Fazlullah in 2009.

It will be a serious challenge for both the prime minister and the new army chief to assuage the discontent in the military ranks. It is imperative for the civil and military leadership to be on the same page to combat militancy that poses a serious threat to democracy.

The government`s dithering and nottaking a firm position on militancy and extremism would not only be demoralising for the soldiers engaged in fighting the insurgents, but also prove divisive for the nation. The more important event for Mr Sharif last week, however, has been the retirement announcement of the super proactive chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Although a couple of weeks were still left for his departure, the president hastily approved the elevation of the senior-most judge to the post. Restored to his position after massive public support, Justice Chaudhry was seen as having overstretched the role of the judiciary to the detriment of the executive.

Although the Zardari government may have borne the brunt of the ram-pant judicial activism, many of the decisions of the current government have also been overturned by the present Supreme Court including the increase in power tariffs. Justice Chaudhry has spared no one.Many legal experts believe that his exit may restore the balance in judicial functioning and remove a major irritant hampering the political process.

With a less proactive judiciary not impinging on the powers of the executive, the government would be given more space to take some important decisions, particularly those related to the economy and privatisation. But there is also a danger that a timid judiciary may remove the checks needed to maintain the balance of power in the system.

Given Mr Sharif`s tendency to amass absolute power, a weak judiciary could be dangerous for the survival of the current democratic set-up.

For sure, the balance of power has now entirely shifted in favour of the Sharif government. But it is still to be seen how the prime minister uses this advantageous situation to improve governance and deliver on the PML-N promise to improve the economy and take a firmer position on the issue of militancy.

Falling to do that may tilt the balance of power against him.

Enough of foreign trips; it is now time to focus on burning domestic issues, Mr Prime Minister.