Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan‘s upper house of parliament has approved a law that allows the government to extend the term of the country’s army chief, despite the objections of some parties and rights activists, a move that could further tighten the military’s grip on power in the South Asian nation.
Pakistan has been directly ruled for roughly half of its 73-year history since independence by the military, led by its army. Current Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa is set to benefit from the new law, with his tenure already due to have been extended in November.
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The Pakistani Senate voted on Wednesday to pass three bills that set a higher retirement age for the chiefs of the Pakistani army, navy and air force, allowing the prime minister to extend their terms at his discretion. The president will sign the bill into law in the coming days.
Pakistan’s governing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party rushed the bills through Parliament this week after a November court ruling that halted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s granting of a three-year extension in service to Bajwa. The new law bars the judiciary from challenging such appointments.
Bajwa, who took the role in 2016, has presided over a broadening of the military’s powers and increased involvement in governance, including in managing the economy.
He was also the army chief during the 2018 general election that brought Khan to power, a poll political opponents say was marred by widespread “political engineering” by the military to encourage party defections and the filing of corruption cases against the PTI’s opponents.
Journalists and rights groups say the military under Bajwa has also spearheaded a widespread campaign of censorship of the Pakistani press, particularly coverage critical of the military or the current government.
The military denies the charges, saying it does not take political sides. In August, when Prime Minister Khan first authorised the extension, his office said it was being done “in view of the regional security environment”, a reference to renewed hostilities with eastern neighbour India, with whom Pakistan has fought three wars since both countries gained independence in 1947.
On Wednesday, the state broadcaster appeared to selectively mute its audio feed during a live telecast of senators voting to cut out the voices of those voting against the bills.
‘The national interest’
A day earlier, the three bills passed in the lower house of parliament with widespread support from both the governing coalition and the opposition benches, a rare occurrence during the PTI’s tenure.
Of the country’s mainstream parties, only the religious right-wing JUI-F and Jamaat-e-Islami – who hold 16 seats in the 342-member house – rejected the bill. Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, two independent legislators who also represent the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) rights group, also voted against it.
“This parliament acted like a rubber stamp,” Mohsin said following the vote. “[The] speaker didn’t even allow the few dissenting voices to make their case. This is one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s parliamentary history.”
The government lauded the opposition for supporting the bills in “the national interest”.
“All parties shunned their differences and stood united in the best national interest,” Minister of Information Firdous Ashiq Awan told reporters after the vote in the lower house.
Abbas Nasir, a senior journalist and now columnist, likened the passage of the bills with the opposition’s compliance to a “capitulation” of democratic forces to the military. The opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had earlier withdrawn proposed amendments to the bills that would have increased oversight on such appointments.
“This is the coup de grace: The final plunging of the dagger in the heart of the civilian supremacy dream,” Nasir told Al Jazeera.
“The capitulated opposition stands discredited, decimated and the army chief triumphant.”
The passage of the bills was necessitated by the Supreme Court halting the extension in Bajwa’s tenure in November, a rare move by a state institution to directly take on the military. The court ruled that Parliament must legislate to set rules regarding the extension in service of any chief of the armed forces beyond the mandated three-year term.
Previously, extensions have been granted to several Pakistani army chiefs, either by themselves when they were ruling the country, or, on one occasion in 2010, by a civilian prime minister.
“The undue haste in which this has occurred has worrying implications for the way in which democratic decisions are made in the future,” said Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Hasan was referring to the government decision, with the main political opposition’s acquiescence, not to allow debate on the bills in committee or on the parliamentary floor.
Others criticised the broadness of the laws, saying it could lead to an expectation of all future armed services chiefs wanting similar extensions on their terms.
“The haste that this has been done with, this means that for long years to come, all service chiefs will have legitimate expectations of getting an extension in their tenure,” said Nusrat Javed, a senior analyst.
Nasir, the columnist, said any perception by the political opposition that, having thrown their weight behind the military, they may now see some share of power was foolish.
“What they don’t understand is that such a ‘share’ will be no more than crumbs off the table of the real ruler of the country,” he said.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.