ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Posters urging the Pakistani Army chief to take over the country in a military coup sprouted suddenly across Pakistan this week, with a photograph of Gen. Raheel Sharif, a burly man with a thick mustache, and an emphatic, pleading request: “For God’s sake, take over.”
They had been posted on the main thoroughfares of major cities by an obscure political party called Move On Pakistan, which believes that civilian leaders cannot be trusted.
The posters immediately sparked all-too-familiar speculation. Is the military planning a coup? Are the powerful generals tired of prodding the civilian government, saddled by one crisis or another?
“There’s no direct evidence of the involvement of the army and its intelligence agencies in the posters,” Ejaz Haider, a prominent political analyst and talk show host, said in an interview. “That said, past experience tells us that one or the other intelligence agency can quietly push certain disgruntled elements to start such campaigns in the physical and virtual worlds.”
Rumors about an impending coup are nothing new in Pakistan, which has had four periods of military rule, direct or indirect, since its founding in 1947. Public patience with civilian rulers, who are seen as corrupt and inefficient, wears out quickly. The military, which controls the levers of power, sees itself as the savior.
And in recent months, the popularity of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, has dipped considerably because of corruption allegations that have swirled around his family.
It is not surprising that Pakistanis are seeking a deeper motive behind the mysterious and organized campaign. At the very least, the timing of the posters, which went up Monday across at least a dozen cities, is peculiar.
Just days earlier, Prime Minister Sharif, serving for the third time, returned to the country after an absence of several weeks to have a heart operation in London on May 31.
At the same time, a whisper campaign has been urging the army chief to reconsider his decision not to seek an extension of his three-year term when it expires in November.
General Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister, remains hugely popular in the country for his successes on the battlefield against Taliban militants. He is seen as a man who gets things done, and many Pakistanis believe that he can bring lasting peace and much-needed economic stability.
Move On Pakistan denies that it is backed by the military, but acknowledges that it does not want General Sharif to retire. “Civilians are corrupt,” Rana Jaffer Ali, the Karachi president of Move On Pakistan, said in an interview. “They only fear the military.”
On Thursday, the civilian government registered a case of criminal conspiracy against the leaders of Move On Pakistan.
Retired generals and some politicians have joined the bandwagon, exhorting the general to extend his military service.
“In the current circumstances, Raheel Sharif cannot go and should not go,” said a retired head of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the powerful spy agency, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “You cannot hand over the country, which is facing a number of crises, to an ailing prime minister.”
The public has grown impatient with Prime Minister Sharif. Largely viewed as an indifferent ruler, preoccupied with opulence and luxury, he spent much of 2104 fending off questions of legitimacy by his political nemesis, Imran Khan. And this year, allegations that his family has hid massive wealth overseas have emerged from the so-called Panama Papers document leak.
Apart from political troubles, Mr. Sharif continues to have a tense relation with the military. His last government was toppled in a bloodless coup in 1999. And this time, too, Mr. Sharif and the military establishment differ over broad policy matters.
Mr. Sharif is a champion of normalizing relations with India and other neighbors, while the military wants to hold off. His government charged Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief, with treason but let him leave the country for medical treatment, under pressure from the military. Mr. Sharif reluctantly allowed the military to launch operations against militants, first in the tribal regions and then in Punjab Province, his political stronghold. Last year, the military issued a pointed statement urging Mr. Sharif’s government to improve governance in the country.
Small irritants also exist. Mr. Sharif has appointed Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a sharp critic of the military’s interference in politics, as the defense minister. In return, Mr. Asif has been given the cold shoulder at the Defense Ministry headquarters and at military ceremonies.
Against this backdrop, some skeptics saw the posters as skulduggery by the intelligence agencies, not as overenthusiasm by those fed up with the civilian government.
On Tuesday, a military spokesman publicly distanced the army from the poster campaign, but also showed no interest in taking action against those behind it. Under the Pakistani Constitution, inciting the military to take over can lead to treason charges.
Analysts like Mr. Haider, however, think the army chief, who is thought to be keen on leaving a legacy, is unlikely to seek an extension of his service.
“I consider the current tension to be more about the military’s frustration with a government that seems to be increasingly becoming dysfunctional,” Mr. Haider said. “However, I do not see the army intervening into the system directly if it continues to act as a rational player. Those fears are misplaced.”
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