By Asif Shahzad and Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s parliament on Tuesday approved extending the term of the army chief for another three years despite the objections of some parties, in a move that ends a political stand-off that had threatened to pit the judiciary against the powerful military.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for about half its history and tensions between governments and the top generals often dominates politics. Any effort by a military chief to consolidate power is viewed with suspicion by many in the political class, who are wary of the army extending its influence further into the civilian domain.
Pashtun parliamentarian Mohsin Dawar, whose party accuses the military of heavy-handed tactics in its anti-militant operations, termed the legislation allowing the extension of Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term “one of the darkest days” in Pakistan’s parliamentary history.
“We voted against the Army Act before walking out. This parliament acted like a rubber stamp,” he tweeted. His Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has been a thorn in the side of the military, mainly by demanding the army’s withdrawal from Afghan border districts.
Critics of Prime Minister Imran Khan say his government, unlike its immediate predecessor, enjoys the support of the military, which is why it approved Bajwa’s extension in August, triggering a constitutional furor.
The government cited a worsening national security situation with old rival India as justification for the extension for Bajwa at the end of the usual three-year term.
But, in a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court struck down the extension in November, ordering the government and army to produce legal provisions and arguments for the reappointment.
Pakistan’s judiciary has lately been more assertive in what supporters and analysts say is a battle to strengthen the rule of law and regain credibility, which the opposition parties allege it lost by interfering in politics. In a separate development, a court last month sentenced former military ruler Pervez Musharraf to death in absentia on treason charges, angering the military.
The government responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling by drafting legislation that the lower house of parliament approved on Tuesday, clearing the way for the extension. It must still be approved by the upper house, which is expected.
“All parties shunned their differences and stood united in the best national interest,” Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan told reporters outside the parliament.
The two main opposition parties have a long history of clashing with the military but nevertheless backed the legislation, largely, analysts say, to avoid a damaging confrontation.
Two smaller parties and some members of parliament from troubled northwestern districts along Afghan border opposed it. They accuse the military of committing rights abuses during its anti-militant operations. The army rejects such accusations.
“This parliament’s majority is fake, this prime minister is fake,” said Asad Mahmood, parliamentary leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) religious political party, which says it unfairly lost seats in the northwest to Khan’s party.
“We will not support any such amendment in the law by a fake parliament.”
The military sets defense and security policy and also dominates foreign affairs. Recently, it has also had a role in framing economic policies.
Opposition activists and rights groups have also accused the military under Bajwa of meddling in politics, limiting civil liberties and muzzling the media. The military denies interfering in politics or curbing freedoms.
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)