Army distances itself from Raheel poster campaign

PPP calls it govt trick to scare opposition; campaigner says his party seeks ‘govt of technocrats’

Afp/Irfan Ghauri July 13, 2016
Hundreds of posters calling for a military takeover have appeared in Islamabad in recent days. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: A day after posters begging army chief General Raheel Sharif to launch a coup popped up in major cities of the country, the Pakistan Army distanced itself from the campaign  launched by a largely unknown political party ‘Move on Pakistan’ which seeks to install a ‘government of technocrats’.

“Reference posters with COAS [chief of army staff]’s picture being displayed across various cities, army or any affiliated organisation have nothing to do with it,” the chief military spokesperson, Lt Gen Asim Bajwa, wrote on microblogging site Twitter Tuesday evening.

Posters begging for military coup raise eyebrows in Pakistan

The posters, which also appeared in Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi as well as several cantonment areas, featured a large photograph of Gen Raheel. "Talk of leaving has become old, for God's sake come now," reads the posters, referring to Gen Raheel Sharif's decision to step down at the end of his tenure this year.

The campaign raised many eyebrows and created quite a buzz on popular social media sites. Political analysts view the campaign with suspicion, while most mainstream political parties used it as a pretext to engage in a verbal duel.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, the largest opposition group, said the PML-N government was using the campaign as a ruse to give out an impression that the military could stage a coup if the opposition, which is planning street agitation, went ahead with their protests.

“The government wants to scare us by creating an impression that the military can take over if the political situation deteriorates. There is no threat of martial law nor is the army ready for any such move,” said Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the opposition in the Senate, who belongs to the PPP.

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His senior party colleague questioned why the government did not dare to pull down the posters. “I am dead sure the army chief is not aware of politics behind this poster campaign,” Khursheed Shah, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, said in a statement.

In a quick rejoinder, the government’s spokesperson, Senator Pervaiz Rashid, said the campaigner has given his cellphone numbers in the posters, “Aitzaz should better speak to him to ask about his motives”.

Though the prime minister and his government are plagued by accusations of corruption and inefficiency, Rashid said the government was not in hot water in the face of threats of street agitation from an increasingly hostile opposition.

The information minister said the talk of extending the army chief’s tenure amounted to undermining the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb. “The army chief’s tenure has not expired. It’s not appropriate to discuss this issue,” he added.

The main politico-religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which is also expected to hit the streets against the government, blamed the government for leading the country to political chaos. But it says undemocratic steps must be discouraged. “Some elements want to derail democracy. It is a responsibility of the government and the armed forces to discourage them,” JI leader Liaqat Baloch said.

The All Pakistan Muslim League, the party of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, who had imposed the last martial law in the country, does not endorse the campaign but says it is a natural reaction of people to the failures of the government. “The government has failed to deliver which is why the masses are calling for a military intervention,” the party’s secretary general, Dr Amjad, told The Express Tribune.

Political analyst Hasan Askari said he did not foresee any threat to the current political system in Pakistan. “There cannot be an organised movement unless there is a popular sentiment present,” he said, dismissing the posters.

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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is said to be preparing to name a successor to the wildly popular general, whose three-year tenure expires in November. Widely credited with the country’s improved security situation, Gen Raheel is the frequent subject of hashtags such as #ThankYouRaheelSharif and #PakLovesGenRaheel.

“The way General Raheel Sharif has dealt with terrorism and corruption, there is no guarantee that the next man would be as effective as him,” said Ali Hashmi, a spokesperson for ‘Move on Pakistan’, a largely-unknown political party which is behind the campaign.

“Dictatorship is much better than this corrupt government,” Hashmi told The Express Tribune.

Hashmi, whose party has run a similar campaign in January, said they were planning more such events. However, he added that they were not calling for a military takeover and that their call for the army chief was being misinterpreted. “Since the government and the opposition are on warpath, we fear the country might slide into political chaos,” he said. “And we want the army chief to install a government of technocrats.”

Hashmi said that authorities in Islamabad and Punjab had removed the posters -- but that they continue to attract attention in other provinces.

The Move on Pakistan is one of 330 political parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). A Faisalabad-based businessman, Muhammad Kamran, is mentioned as President of the party on ECP’s website. Reportedly, he owns a chain of private schools in different cities of Punjab, including Lahore.

The party claims to have ‘hundreds of thousands’ of members who support the campaign. “We have suspended membership for now. Before the launch of this campaign hundreds of thousands of people were registered as our members,” Hashmi claimed.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2016.

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