Supporters of two major Pakistani opposition political parties, lawmakers, rights campaigners, and activists have expressed anger and disappointment after the lower house of the parliament passed laws granting the country’s powerful army chief a new term in office.
The January 7 move follows a Supreme Court ruling in November that granted General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the current army chief, six months in office on the condition that the government passes legislation within that period to streamline the issue of conceding a new term in office to senior military leaders by the prime minister.
“People are in shock and seething with anger,” says Gul Bukhari, an exiled democracy activist. “The betrayal by the PML-N and the PPP is unspeakable,” she added, referring to the two leading opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party, by their acronyms.
Bukhari, in her 50s, has endured kidnapping, the loss of her job, and exile after participating in PML-N protests and online activism following the July 2017 sacking of party leader and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“In our struggle for civilian supremacy, people have lost their jobs, been abducted, tortured, exiled, and jailed,” she said. “The very same people were lied to and ditched. Benazir Bhutto, too, must be turning in her grave at what her party has done today,” she added while referring to the late PPP leader and former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007.
Bukhari now says that by supporting the legislation, the PML-N has rejected Sharif’s slogan of “Respect the vote” and has instead has disrespected millions of its voters. “The PML-N has caved and provided parliamentary cover to institutionalize the military dictatorship,” she noted.
Rana Sanaullah, a PML-N lawmaker, also admitted that the party’s decision to unconditionally support the Pakistan Army Amendment Bill 2020, the Pakistan Air Force Amendment Bill 2020 and Pakistan Navy Amendment Bill 2020, as the laws are formally called, has disappointed its supporters. The laws will enable the government to grant three-year extensions to armed forces’ heads while setting the maximum age for them at 64. A key provision of the laws says courts cannot review government decisions regarding extensions.
“We have not violated the trust of our voters, but you can say that we have failed to take them into confidence,” he told independent journalist Matiullah Jan. “We now have to sit with them and give them an explanation.”
Nafisa Shah, a PPP lawmaker, also attempted to pacify criticism from within her party ranks.
“This bill was not about one extension which had already been given by #PTIgovt but about clearer provisions for commissioning armed forces,” she wrote on Twitter, referring to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party by its acronym. “I hope PPP workers will recognize that we tried at every step to ensure parliamentary process, debate and amendments to uphold civilian supremacy.”
But lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights campaign, was among the handful of MPs who voted against the law.
“Today is a very disappointing day,” he told journalists outside the parliament in Islamabad. “The disappointment I see among political workers in Pakistan is not a good omen for the idea of establishing civilian supremacy in the country.”
Lawmaker Asad Mehmood, a leader of the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI), said they opposed the laws to preserve the gains of the activists and politicians who sacrificed their lives and wellbeing for democracy in the country.
“Out message clearly is that we are not disappointed but will take the issue to the nation,” he told journalists.
JUI has led the PML-N, PPP, and numerous other opposition political parties in criticizing the military for allegedly rigging the July 2018 parliamentary elections in favor of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI. “We have never recognized this [PTI] government, but these parties [the PPP and PML-N] convinced us to play our role against it inside the parliament,” he noted.
PML-N and PPP’s support for Bajwa’s new term in office has been in the making for months. Many jailed leaders of the two parties have been freed, including Sharif and PPP leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari.
However, it is not clear if they will secure more concessions from the military, which has directly ruled the country for more than 30 years since 1958 and is frequently accused of manipulating anemic civilian administrations during democratic interregnums.
Khan’s administration, which has thrived on lambasting PPP and PML-N leaders, however, has been quick to praise them for supporting the legislation.
“Today was a historic day because we unanimously adopted this legislation,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, Khan’s media adviser, told journalists. “They proved their patriotism by standing with their national cause.”
But in a January 6 statement, several Pakistani rights watchdogs opposed the laws and called on political parties to oppose them.
“We are also disappointed with the political parties’ response,” the statement noted. “Instead of rushing into a discussion on the procedure for extending the army service chief’s tenure, they should have called for a debate on the need for, and legitimacy of, any extension.”
The laws were tabled in the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament late on January 7. They are expected to be adopted the following day and to then be signed into law by the president.