For more than two years, Pakistan’s former ruling and current leading opposition political party rallied behind the slogan “Respect the vote” to assert civilian supremacy and push for an end to the military’s manipulation of politics.
But the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) has now agreed to support proposed legislation that would grant General Qamar Javed Bajwa a new term in office.
The step will have larger implications as Bajwa will likely continue to institutionalize the military’s already-predominant role in determining the nuclear-armed nation’s security, economic, and foreign policies while keeping its anemic political parties on a tight leash.
“What I know from the news is that the Pakistan Muslim League will extend unconditional support to the amendments in the Army Act,” lawmaker Rana Sanaullah, a key PML-N leader, told reporters on January 2. “We do not want to make the army and the office of it chief in particular controversial.”
But the PML-N’s stance has attracted increasing criticism from journalists, party activists, and civil society leaders.
“By licking the PTI’s spit on the issue of amendments to the Army Act, [PML-N leaders] Shehbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif have granted historic respect to the vote and the votes,” journalist Talat Hussain wrote on Twitter.
“The PML-N took this decision to preserve the greater interest of the Sharif family,” Ansar Abbasi, another journalist, ridiculed the decision while referring former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family.
“This is like [the PML-N] committing fraud with its own supporters,” he told the private Samaa television. “They advocated ‘respect for vote’ and what direction have they moved towards now?”
On January 1, the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) finalized draft amendments to the Army Act, a law that regulates service in the largest branch of the country’s military, and the constitution. In December, Pakistan’s Supreme Court gave the government six months to decide the issue of Bajwa’s new term after it overturned a government order granting him three more years in office.
On January 2, senior PTI leaders, all senior administration figures, approached PML-N and other opposition parties for support to turn the proposed legislation into a law or act of parliament. The PTI only has a wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly or lower house of the parliament but is in the minority in the upper house or Senate. Constitutional amendments need a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), another major opposition group, however, was more circumspect.
“The Peoples Party wants to positively engage with the democratic legislative process. Some parties seem to want to side step the legislative process,” he tweeted after meeting the PTI delegation on January 2. “The more important the legislation the more important it is for us to follow the democratic process. PPP will take this up with other political parties as well.”
Lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a civil rights movement, was adamant in opposing the proposed legislation because, he argued, laws shouldn't be changed to suit personal ambitions.
“This will be a major setback for the struggle for civilian supremacy in Pakistan,” he tweeted. “Laws shouldn't make institutions subservient to ambitions of individuals. Laws should ensure that institutions work within their mandate.”
The issue is expected to dominate Pakistani politics in the coming days.