ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – On the eve of crucial elections and less than three months after he quit as army chief, President Pervez Musharraf increasingly appears to be a man alone.
One of his most important sources of support, the Pakistani army, has conspicuously stepped away from politics and any major role in Monday’s parliamentary elections, which could jeopardize his hold on power. And as the army has distanced itself from Musharraf, whose popularity has sunk to new lows, so have his main political allies, who no longer are using his image in their election campaigns.
In the past few weeks, the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who has known Musharraf for 20 years as a soldier, has adopted new policies demanding that officers “stay away from political activities” and abandon the prized civilian posts long considered a perk of military life. Kayani also announced a new military compensation package to help shore up an army whose popularity has fallen alongside Musharraf’s.
Army officials have even publicly distanced the army from statements by Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999 and has long been seen in Washington as an indispensable ally in the war on terror.
Is split permanent?
The moves by Kayani and other top military brass have further isolated the president, who has struggled with a deepening political crisis for almost a year, and separated him from an institution long considered the real power broker in Pakistan.
“Kayani has realized there is a huge civil and military divide at the moment,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. “He sees the moment the army is [involved in] politics, you impede democracy and you alienate the people. … He wants to totally focus on the profession. And the profession was grossly neglected in the last eight years.”
The army has always been a fact of political life in Pakistan, under direct military rule for more than half its 60-year history. Even when the army has not directly ruled the country, it has pulled the strings behind weak civilian rulers; only one civilian prime minister has managed to last an entire 5-year term.
Because of that history, many analysts say it is not clear whether the separation between the new army chief and the old one is a permanent split or a temporary cooling-off period.
But the message since Kayani took over has been consistent and public. In January he wrote a letter to junior officers telling them they had no role to play in politics and warned that anyone who asked a politician to visit army headquarters in Rawalpindi or violated his directive would have “to face the music,” according to an article in The News, a respected Pakistani newspaper. The army spokesman later confirmed that Kayani had issued the order but would not confirm the actual contents of the letter.
Kayani, considered a soldier’s soldier, declared 2008 as the “year of the soldier” and last week approved a $162.6million package to improve the quality of life of soldiers and young officers.
The new compensation package is likely an attempt to reduce the complaints of soldiers uncomfortable with fighting Muslims in the country’s border areas, with the increased number of suicide attacks against the army and with the army’s drop in popularity.
The general also stressed that the only role the army will have in parliamentary elections is security. In a statement released after the corps commanders meeting, Kayani said the “army will meet only its constitutional obligations and help the civil administration maintain law and order, as and when required.”
In a poll released Monday by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, 57 percent of respondents said Musharraf’s performance caused them to have a lower opinion of the army, once one of the most respected institutions in the country. And 69 percent of people said the army should not play a role in civilian government.
Musharraf’s approval rating dropped to its lowest point ever — only 15 percent — and a big defeat for his allies in Monday’s elections could pose a threat to his continued rule if his opponents win enough seats to challenge his standing or possibly impeach him.
Rashid Qureshi, the presidential spokesman and a retired major general, said the army has always been taught to stay out of politics and that Kayani is just reminding soldiers of that policy. Qureshi said Musharraf accepted this.
“He loves the army and the armed forces,” Qureshi said. “That way of life I’m sure is something he misses. But I’m also 100 percent sure he’s a realist and as long as he can serve his country, I’m certain he gets a lot of satisfaction even today. … There is no friction.”
Party breaks ranks
But as the army has moved away from Musharraf, so has his ruling party, cobbled together from existing parties after his coup. Candidates from the party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, don’t feature Musharraf’s picture on their banners, unlike in past elections.
On Sunday, the secretary general of the party, Mushahid Hussain, even demanded that Musharraf’s government release the judges, lawyers and political activists detained since the emergency declared in November. “The heavens will not fall,” he said.
Even retired officers — usually a taciturn bunch — have come out against Musharraf since he stepped down as army chief. They held a rally last week outside army headquarters in Rawalpindi and demanded that Musharraf quit as president. Musharraf dismissed them as “disenchanted job-seeking retired generals.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Faiz Ali Chishti, president of the Ex-Servicemen’s Society, an advocacy group of 90,000 retired soldiers, said the military needed to get out of politics in Pakistan.
“Even now we are not making political statements, we are just giving advice,” Chishti said. “We have told the retired general to get out. To resign with grace.”
Parties say they’ll form anti-Musharraf coalition if victorious supporters turn out for a campaign rally for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday in Narowal, Pakistan. Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, and Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Ali Zardari, widowed husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said Tuesday they would form a coalition government if — as expected — their groups win the biggest share of votes in next week’s parliamentary elections.