Unlike in the Past, Army In Pakistan Restrains Itself

A general wins kudos for a commitment to democracy and his refusal to use the military to settle a recent political crisis.

Even in the low-key style of his morning drive to headquarters, it is obvious that Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Jehangir Karamat, is determined to break from old traditions. Unlike with many of his predecessors, the general has no blaring sirens to clear his way. There's hardly a motorcade that would catch the attention of other drivers - only the general's black Mercedes and a second escort car.

General Karamat has not only earned praise for cutting down on pomp and festivity. He has also developed a reputation for being strongly committed to democracy and, with one eye on Western donors helping to restore the country's grim economy, he has shown a resolve to keep the military out of politics.

For the country's young democracy, those qualities came to the fore last month when Karamat refused to be drawn into a political crisis among Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former President Farooq Leghari, and the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah.

The Supreme Court under Mr. Shah was aggressively pursuing a contempt of court charge against Mr. Sharif. If found guilty, Sharif would have been disqualified as a member of parliament and dismissed from his job.

When the Supreme Court building was ransacked by angry workers belonging to the ruling political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Karamat refused a request from Shah and Mr. Leghari to give military protection. In an unprecedented event, President Leghari quit while Shah went home on a "long leave" until his retirement, due in February. Usually prime ministers and parliaments are sacked when they quarrel with the president.

In the past 10 years, four elected prime ministers have been thrown out of office without completing their terms, simply because they have fought with the president of the day.

"General Karamat played an honorable role when he refused to send the military," says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, who asked not to be identified. "His gesture meant ... he was committed to parliamentary democracy."

The military has ruled Pakistan for almost half of the country's 50 years of independence, and it is the state's most powerful institution. Past military chiefs eagerly seized the opportunity to impose martial law. Even after the death in 1988 of the last military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, in 1988, the military's support has been crucial for politicians to lead the country, according to senior government officials who asked not to be identified.

Asma Jehangir, Pakistan's leading human rights lawyer, says there is a growing feeling within the military that "you just can't walk over" democracy. "Times have changed internationally, and a coup would have been widely condemned. "We are also fortunate to have people like ... Karamat."

Some government officials believe that the military's change has been partially driven by its concern that the recent turmoil in Pakistan's economy would intensify if the government fell in a military-supported coup. Almost a quarter of Pakistan's annual budget goes toward maintaining the country's defense forces. Although Pakistan is one of the poorest nations in the world, with a per capita income of $480, it ranks among the top 10 weapons buyers.

Some observers worry that a prolonged economic breakdown may create anarchy and eventually force the Army to intervene. "The best assurance for democracy is (the) strength of the parliament and the ability to deliver on popular demands," says the Western diplomat. "If that fails, in spite of General Karamat's commendable role, his successor may not necessarily be able to follow in his footsteps."

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