The formal process to appoint the next army chief is set to kick off “very shortly” as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who otherwise spends his weekends in Lahore, stayed in the federal capital to make the imminent decision.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told a private TV news channel that the process for the appointment of the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS) would start on Monday.
However, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said the new army chief would be announced in the next couple of days.
The conflicting statements being given by the two ministers suggest that the government is under serious stress, as some observers are of the view that this may indicate a possible deadlock between the civil and military authorities on the selection of the next army chief.
With all eyes on the prime minister, official sources said “closed door consultations” were under way in the corridors of power to develop a consensus among the stakeholders for the key appointment.
The process, the sources added, for the appointment would begin “very shortly”. However, they did not elaborate if the decision was imminent on Friday night or within the next couple of days.
Some sources claimed the Prime Minister's Office might announce the appointment of a new army chief within 24 hours.
Although the appointment of the army chief is the sole prerogative of the prime minister, the coalition government is keen to consult all stakeholders before a final decision is made.
The move is aimed at reaching a broader consensus among the key stakeholders so that the decision serves the interests of the institution and the country.
Hectic political activities were witnessed in Islamabad in the last couple of days with Finance Minister Ishaq Dar holding a series of meetings, including with President Arif Alvi; PPP co-chairperson and former president Asif Ali Zardari; and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman in what appeared to be part of efforts aimed at ensuring smooth transition in the army command.
Dar's meeting with Alvi on Friday was seen as significant, as the summary of the army chief's appointment had to be signed by the president. There are rumours that the president, who happens to be a PTI leader, may block the summary at the behest of his party chief, Imran Khan.
The finance minister met the president and the leaders of coalition partners on behalf of PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Shehbaz, who could not meet them in person after being diagnosed with Covid-19.
While Dar had a busy day, the focus was also on the defence ministry, which has to send a summary containing eligible candidates for the posts of the army chief and chairman joint chiefs of staff committee to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The sources said the government had called back the defence secretary, who was abroad, to start the process.
The summary is likely to carry names of the five senior-most generals. Traditionally, the prime minister holds consultations with the outgoing army chief on the new appointment. However, the outgoing army chief’s advice is not binding on the prime minister.
In 2013 and 2016, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif had ignored the advice of the outgoing army chiefs.
There is one difference this time though that the political situation is volatile and the PML-N does not have its man at the Presidency.
In the past, the opposition has never raised any questions about the appointment of the new army chief. However, the current opposition leader Imran is taking a keen interest in the matter.
In fact, many observers believe that one of the main objectives of the PTI chief’s long march is to influence the appointment of the new chief.
Against this backdrop, there are concerns that the Presidency may resort to a mischief.
Because of these apprehensions, the PML-N-led government geared up its efforts to smoothly appoint the next military chief.
Dar called on President Alvi a day after he met Zardari and Fazl.
Zardari issued a statement on the military chief’s appointment while the JUI-F chief called on PM Shehbaz despite the latter being in quarantine.
Sources in the ruling alliance said the finance minister and the president discussed the prevailing political situation and the key appointment, observing that there should not be a deadlock on constitutional and legal issues.
Soon after Dar’s meeting with Alvi, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani also called on the president.
The flurry of meetings in the last couple of days suggests that the ruling coalition has accelerated its efforts to end any possible deadlock on the appointment of the new military czar.
The ruling alliance also deliberated on the PTI’s long march, which is expected to converge soon in the twin cities with the demand of snap polls.
Although PTI chief Imran has announced that he had stepped back from the issue of the military chief’s appointment, the recent meetings had taken place against the backdrop of the concerns being expressed that the president might block the government’s decision when the summary was finally sent by PM Shehbaz to Alvi for approval.
The apprehensions were strengthened when PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry tweeted that President Alvi would fulfill his constitutional responsibilities in connection with army chief’s appointment.
“It should be clarified that whatever steps the president takes will have the full backing of Imran Khan,” Fawad wrote.
Despite announcing that he no longer had any interest in the new COAS’ appointment, Imran once again spoke on the issue in an informal chat with journalists in Lahore by saying that Nawaz wanted to appoint an army chief, who would disqualify the PTI chief from politics.
Zardari issued a statement, saying that all three-star generals were equal and fully qualified to head the army.
However, the PPP co-chairperson said the politicisation of the issue should be avoided at all costs as it would harm the institution.
The discussion over the army chief’s appointment also compelled the JUI-F chief to rush to meet PM Shehbaz, who contracted Covid-19 right after returning from London and is currently quarantined.
The official press release issued after the meeting between Dar and Alvi stated that the minister briefed the president on the overall economic and financial outlook of the country.
It added that the financial czar also briefed the president on various steps taken by the government to provide relief to the people, especially to the unprivileged population of the underserved areas of the country as well as the flood-affected people.
It also read that the two men also discussed various matters concerning finance and the economy.