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Pakistan Military Adjusts to Return of Civilian Rule

Pakistan's just-completed elections mark a return to civilian parliamentary government after more than eight years of one-man rule. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, a civilian government and the military establishment must once again forge a working relationship at a time of political uncertainty and heightened security threats.

Throughout Pakistan's 60-year history, no civilian prime minister has ever been allowed to complete a term of office without direct or indirect intervention by the military. The last such takeover was in 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup.

Now with an opposition victory in the parliamentary elections, the pendulum swings back to the civilians as soon as a coalition government can be formed. Mr. Musharraf remains president but is no longer chief of the military, having resigned from that post under public pressure last year. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has ordered military officers to stay out of politics and give up any government posts they hold.

The military has always been a powerful institution in Pakistan. But, as former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin, points out, under President Musharraf the army entrenched itself deeper into civilian institutions than ever before.

"It has under Musharraf recently become much too involved in civilian government and as head of corporations," she said. "Kayani has taken a number of steps to pull them back to the barracks, back to their traditional role, restoring the trust and faith of the Pakistani people in the army."

Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at the RAND Corporation, says the military lost considerable public support as a result of Mr. Musharraf's actions, particularly his dismissal of judges and the temporary imposition of emergency rule.

"You'll recall an IRI poll over the summer that really shook the army to its boots, because the most popular institution was the judiciary, followed by the media, and then the army came tumbling in at three," she noted. "The army is accustomed to being the most trusted institution among Pakistanis. So that had to give them basically a little bit of heartburn."

Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan affairs analyst who has just written a book about the Pakistani army, says the military is upset about losing prestige as it tries to deal with a growing domestic terrorist threat.

"From all indications there's a fair amount of unhappiness within the army at all levels about the fact that it is no longer given the same level of respect in the public, and that in fact it has become a target of terrorist actions," he said. "This is something completely new for the army in Pakistan, which has always been very highly regarded and highly respected."

Nawaz says that for the army to stay out of political matters requires more political maturity from the civilian leaders.

"If they [the army] see the situation deteriorating because of the government's actions or inactions, then of course it's likely they would discuss ways of intervening," he added. "But the first instinct of most of the [military] people currently is to stay away. And if the civilians oblige them by showing responsibility in how they deal with each other, and also in how they deal with the militancy issue in particular, then I see things stabilizing somewhat."

Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the lawyers' movement against Mr. Musharraf that sprung up last year, tells VOA the civilian and military establishments can forge a new relationship - but not, he says, as long as Mr. Musharraf remains in office.

"I think that a new working relationship can be worked out, but as long as General Musharraf is there, that is hardly a possibility," he said. "I think that his presence will only mess up things and muddy the waters.

The two parties that won the most seats in the election - Nawaz Sharif's PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto - are the same two parties whose governments were dismissed for corruption and incompetence by successive presidents in the 1990s.

It was another military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, who in 1985 gave the president the power to dismiss the government. But in practical terms such a move by the president cannot be taken without army approval.