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Thursday, October 8, 1998 Published at 20:11 GMT 21:11 UK

World: South Asia

Analysis: Resignation shifts balance of power

Wiill the army now take a tougher line with the government

Owen Bennett-Jones reports on whether General Jehangir Karamat's decision to step down marks a new phase in Pakistani politics.

On the face of it, General Karamat's resignation is a considerable political victory for the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Some 48 hours before he decided to step down, the military issued a press release which quoted some remarks made by the general.

Although he didn't explicitly name Mr Sharif as the target of his comments, few doubted what General Karamat meant when he said the country could not afford the destabilising effects of polarisation vendettas and insecurity-driven expedient policies.

[ image: General Karamat: resigned under pressure]
General Karamat: resigned under pressure
It was the clearest and strongest attack on the government that he had ever made in public.

At first the prime minister seemed unsure how to react. The government appeared to be on the back foot, refusing to respond to the general's remarks.

But then Mr Sharif struck back. After a series of secret consultations with senior advisors and family members, he had a stormy meeting with General Karamat in which he asked the army chief to justify what he had done.

The general, complaining that his motivation had been misunderstood, decided to go.

That decision would seem to leave Mr Sharif as the most powerful prime minister in Pakistani history.

He has already won showdowns with the presidency and the judiciary. Now, he has forced an army chief to resign - an unprecedented feat.

Government supporters are keen to portray the general's departure as a victory for democracy. After all, the general was suggesting that there should be a National Security Council to give the military a more formal role in decision-making.

Karamat respected

But it may be that Mr Sharif will come to regret his decision. General Karamat had for years, consistently and repeatedly said that he would never resort to military intervention and launch a coup.

His departure suggests that he was indeed genuine in those statements.

But few doubt that when General Karamat complained about the current government, and proposed the establishment of a National Security Council, he was speaking for the army as a whole.

And the military's disenchantment with the government is only likely to be enhanced by the fact that Mr Sharif has effectively humiliated a widely-respected military chief.

Not much is known about the new army chief, Pervez Musharaf. Military sources describe him as very much in the same mould as General Karamt - a reformer with pro-Western attitudes.

If that assessment is borne out over the next few months then the military might be content to remain on the sidelines, occasionally advising the government behind the scenes.

Alternatively, the sense of discontent in the army could grow. General Karamat has scarcely concealed the fact that the army was under great pressure to take a tougher line with government.

He says he long resisted the temptation to do so. It remains to be seen whether his successor will take the same view.

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