ISLAMABAD: Besieged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been assured by military that there will be no coup, but in return he must “share space with the army”, according to a government source who was privy to recent talks between the two sides.
Last week, as tens of thousands of protesters advanced on the federal capital to demand his resignation, Sharif dispatched two emissaries to consult with the army chief.
He wanted to know if the military was quietly engineering the twin protest movements by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan and activist cleric Tahirul Qadri, or if, perhaps, it was preparing to stage a coup.
According to a government insider with a first-hand account of the meeting, Sharif’s envoys returned with good news and bad: there will be no coup but if he wants his government to survive, from now on it will have to share space with the army.
The army’s media wing declined to comment.
Thousands of protesters marched to parliament on Tuesday, using a crane and bolt cutters to force their way past barricades of shipping containers, as riot police and paramilitaries watched on after being told not to intervene.
Military spokesman General Asim Bajwa tweeted a reminder to protesters to respect government institutions and called for a “meaningful dialogue” to resolve the crisis.
Even if, as seems likely, the Khan and Qadri protests eventually fizzle out due to a lack of overt support from the military, the prime minister will emerge weakened from political crisis.
Sharif may have to be subservient to the generals on issues he wanted to handle himself — from the fight against Taliban to relations with India and Pakistan’s role in neighbouring, post-Nato Afghanistan.
“The biggest loser will be Nawaz, cut down to size both by puny political rivals and the powerful army,” said a government minister who asked not to be named.
“From this moment on, he’ll always be looking over his shoulder.”
A year ago, few would have predicted that Sharif would be in such trouble: back then, he had just swept to power for a third time in a milestone poll that marked the first transition from one elected government to another.
But in the months that followed, Sharif — who had crossed swords with the army in the past — moved to enhance the clout of the civilian government in a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half of its history.
He irked the generals by putting former military head Pervez Musharraf, who had ended Sharif’s last stint as prime minister in a 1999 coup, on trial for treason.
Sharif is also said to have opposed a military offensive to crush Taliban insurgents and sought reconciliation with India.
Sources in Sharif’s government said that with civilian-military relations in such bad shape, Sharif suspected that the street protests to unseat him were being manipulated from behind the scenes by the army.
He also feared that if the agitations turned violent, the army would exploit the situation to seize power for itself.