Military returns to political arena in Pakistan

Military returns to political arena in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD - The Associated Press
Military returns to political arena in Pakistan

Cricketer-turned-politician Khan alleges the general election was rigged.

Pakistan’s powerful military returned to the political arena on Aug. 28, agreeing to mediate between the government and protesters who have camped out in the capital for two weeks demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged voting fraud.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who have led parallel anti-government protests, met with army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif late Aug. 28 after saying they had agreed to his role as “mediator and guarantor” in talks with the premier. Prime Minister Sharif himself denied asking the country’s military chief to mediate with opposition leaders and protesters.

Nawaz Sharif’s remarks to the National Assembly on Aug. 29 indicate that the negotiations were unlikely to produce a breakthrough in the crisis.

The move marks a tentative return to politics for the military barely a year after Sharif became prime minister in Pakistan’s first democratic transfer of power. The country has a long history of political turmoil and military interventions in politics, and Sharif himself was removed from office during a previous stint as prime minister in a military coup in 1999.

This time around, he has sought to assert his independence from the military with friendly policies toward Pakistan’s longtime rival India and an attempt to negotiate peace with Taliban insurgents, which made little progress.

His decision to bring treason charges against the former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew him in 1999, is believed to have angered the military. But his main challenge over the past two weeks has come from the protests, which at their height brought tens of thousands of people into the capital, where they camped outside parliament and demanded he resign over alleged fraud in last year’s election.

Ministers welcome mediation

Pakistani Defense Minister Khwaja Mohammad Asif welcomed the offer of mediation, which came after the premier asked the military to broker talks.

“I think we should view it positively that the army is playing a constitutional and legal role,” he said. The interior minister also said the intransigence of anti-government protest movements had left no alternative but mediation by the army to end the crisis. “Again and again they said they only trust the army and will only have talks through the army,” Chaudhry Ali Nisar Khan said.

It was not immediately clear whether the military would be able to broker a deal. After the meeting, Khan said the general told him the army would guarantee an independent and impartial judicial probe into the allegations of vote fraud.

But Khan said he “made it clear” that “there can’t be an independent investigation so long as Nawaz Sharif is prime minister.”