As Pakistan votes, the military watches sternly from its barracks
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - When a rock-band song mocking Pakistan's army was mysteriously blocked on Internet sites recently, no one was surprised. But, as political parties jousted their way to this Saturday's elections, it was a small reminder of where power really lies.
There is no doubt that attempts to bury a legacy of decades of military rule have made headway in Pakistan, where - for the first time - a civilian government completed its five-year term and stood aside to allow voters choose its successor.
But it would be a mistake to interpret the army's decision to stay put in its barracks throughout those five years as a sign that it has loosened its grip on power, or that civilian primacy has at last arrived in the nuclear-armed nation.
Whatever the make-up of the government that emerges from the general election, its powers will be heavily circumscribed.
The military will decide on foreign policy and security, including the volatile ties with Washington as NATO troops withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan, and it will still run the thorny relationship with old enemy and nuclear rival India.
"There is no new chapter in the history of Pakistan as far as civilian-military relations are concerned," said Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on Pakistan's secretive army. "The military remains relevant to politics, and it has partnerships that allow it to remain outside but control the inside."
That the civilian government will still play second fiddle in Pakistan's policy-making establishment raises questions about how far Pakistan's young democracy has come and suggests that future coups cannot be ruled out.
Indeed, the prospect of election frontrunner Nawaz Sharif - who has crossed swords with the army in the past - returning as prime minister for a third time has raised concern that civilian-military distrust could erupt in open hostility.
"If Nawaz wins it will be a miracle if he completes five years," said a senior journalist in Islamabad, who turned up the volume on his television during an interview with Reuters to muffle the conversation.
The military has ruled this South Asian nation for more than half of its history since independence in 1947, through coups or from behind the scenes.
The tentacles of the army reach into every corner of society, including the media and - thanks to a multi-billion-dollar business empire of its own - the economy. Its shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence arm has been dubbed a state within a state, and is believed to have vast influence over politicians.
Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani, whose reputation as a cool-headed, thinking general sets him apart from some of his impetuous predecessors, has said repeatedly that soldiers have no business running the government.
"No doubt there is a lot of pressure on him from generals below to do something," said Muhammad Malick, a news anchor on the Dunya TV channel. "But personally he is not someone who would like to intervene."
The army has good reason to want an amenable prime minister.
Kayani is due to retire this November, and the civilian government must at least nominally approve his successor. The new military chief will be in charge at a pivotal time as Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan, redrawing political and strategic alliances across a region that also includes Iran, India and central Asian states.
Some analysts say the preferred - and likely - election outcome for the army would be a parliament where no one party holds a majority, with the balance of power held by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Analysts say the military sees Khan as a useful foil to the main parties, whose corruption and incompetence in power has fuelled a build-up of social tensions.
The military itself has lost much of its aura of invincibility within the country after a series of embarrassing setbacks since Kayani took over in 2007.
These have included brazen attacks by Islamist militants on key military bases and the surprise swoop in 2011 by U.S. special forces on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's hideout in a garrison town just 50 km (30 miles) up the road from Islamabad.
Meanwhile, the judiciary - long under the thumb of the military - has been flexing its muscles.
In 2007, Supreme Court Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry was removed from office after he opposed plans to extend the term of then- military leader Pervez Musharraf. He was reinstated after a rash of street protests by lawyers, and then last year Chaudhry ruled that the military should stop interfering in politics.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, resigned in 2008 and went into self-imposed exile abroad, returned to Pakistan in March to run in the election for a parliament seat.
Instead, he was arrested for his crackdown on the judiciary during his rule, and the astonished people of Pakistan watched on TV the ignominious spectacle of a former army commander fleeing from court and then being jeered by hundreds of lawyers.
"The military used to get cover from the judiciary," said a retired military officer, who asked not to be named. "The difference between that time and now is the strength and independence of the judiciary."
Even the media, while still manipulated by the military, now finds the army "an easier morsel to chew", says Dunya's Malick.
DEMOCRACY OR DICTATORSHIP?
But if the military has given some ground to democratic institutions, it remains a widely respected centre of power that has the country's politicians looking over their shoulders.
In a cryptic speech last month that has since been pored over by countless commentators, General Kayani took a swipe at the political class for its "self-aggrandizement" and "plundering (of) national wealth and resources".
Many have taken his address as a warning to the incoming government that only by breaking with the corrupt and feckless ways of its predecessors can the country - as he put it - "end this game of hide-and-seek between democracy and dictatorship".
Sharif, although a protégé of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, was turfed from the prime minister's office by Musharraf in 1999 and is still distrusted by the army.
He had his own warning for generals angling to succeed Kayani, pointing to Musharraf's recent humiliating ordeal. "This accountability which is now taking place is itself a lesson to all those who have any such designs in the future," he said.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)