reURING AN EXCITED Talking on a Pakistani talk show earlier this month, a government minister produced a well-polished boot and placed it on the studio desk. Disregarding the opposition’s claims to defend civil authority over the armed forces, he accused them instead of “putting down and kissing” the boot. Even in the conflicting world of Pakistani political broadcasts, Faisal Vawda’s coup had the power to shock.
Everyone in Pakistan knows that the military gives instructions to politicians, not the other way around. But its supremacy is not publicly recognized, except in timid references to “the establishment” or “to the selectors”. Imran Khan, the Prime Minister, is said to have prohibited Mr. Vawda from participating in talk shows for his openness.
The boot was under discussion because of a few feverish months in Pakistani politics. The first came from a confusing debate over the extension of the mandate of the country’s highest soldier, Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of staff of the army. Although no civilian prime minister has ever completed a full parliamentary mandate in Pakistan, several military leaders have managed to stay beyond the three years allocated to them. Khan, no doubt hoping to extend his term, eagerly approved a second three-year term for General Bajwa.
But that was not it, surprisingly. The Supreme Court unexpectedly chose to seize an obscure petition challenging the extension, even pressing when the petitioner got cold feet. A few days before the end of General Bajwa’s initial mandate, which was due to expire at the end of November, his new mandate was suspended while Asif Saeed Khosa, the chief judge, was deliberating. After three days of suspense, the court returned the ball to Parliament. It gave MPs six months to legislate more clearly on the tenure of army chiefs, and said that General Bajwa could stay in the interim.
Doesn’t cause brass hats
Parliament has predictably approved the necessary legislation in record time, giving the government full latitude to extend the term of the chief of the military and prohibiting court challenges to such extensions. Even the two main opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML–NOT) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who often deplore military interference in politics, missed the chance to cut the wings of the generals. Instead, the two voted obediently with the government, thereby winning Mr. Vawda’s gibes.
Then, in December, a special court sentenced Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief behind the coup, to death for suspending the constitution in 2007. The military again bristled. The sentence had been “received with great pain and anguish,” said the high command. Earlier this month, an appeals court surrendered and ruled that it was the establishment of the special tribunal, not the suspension of the constitution, that was illegal.
Why does the judiciary make life in the military difficult when politicians are not? Some believe that Chief Justice Khosa, who retired in December, had an eye on his legacy. After all, some of his predecessors presented themselves as fearless judicial superheroes. Alternatively, he might have wished to restore a certain distance between the judiciary and the armed forces, after the courts had been criticized for having obeyed the army by ousting Nawaz Sharif, one of Mr. Khan’s predecessors. Another theory maintains that the discomfort at the level of the extension within the army itself emboldens the judges. General Bajwa’s now extended mandate will hinder the promotion of many of them.
What about the opposition parties? Many believe that they have come to the conclusion that they can only gain power with the support of the generals, as did Mr. Khan. The military is popular, after all. It is better to wait until he gets tired of Mr. Khan than to campaign against military influence. This week only, members of the PML–NOT started spreading a rumor that he was about to persuade the military to drop Mr. Khan and his Pakistani party Tehreek-e-Insaf, and put them back instead. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Extend and Pretend”