In contrast with the popular wisdom about an all-powerful Pakistan Army controlling all levers of power in the country, the Supreme Court of Pakistan yesterday (26 November) took everyone by surprise when it suspended the federal government notification which granted Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa an extension of three years.
The bold move by the country’s judiciary is reminiscent of the final years of the Musharraf government, when the Pakistan Army-controlled executive often found itself directly and openly opposed by the country’s apex court.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan at that time, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was widely perceived as opposed to allowing Musharraf to continue to rule the country for another five years.
Unsurprisingly, Musharraf responded to an uncooperative judiciary by suspending the chief justice. History is witness to how that move quickly backfired and set in motion the sequence of events leading to the general’s downfall.
Although General Bajwa’s grip on power is not as obvious and transparent, the kind of quid pro quo relationship between the federal government and the Pakistan Army cannot be overstated.
Thus, it is that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is often labelled as ‘selected’ for the country by the military, rather than the one ‘elected’ by the people.
This bonhomie has now met an unexpected hurdle in the form of the Pakistani judiciary. In its order yesterday, the four-judge bench led by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Asif Saeed Khosa sternly observed how a number of rules and regulations had been bypassed by the federal government while issuing the extension notification.
Chief among these observations are how Khan’s government took the assent of just 11 of 25 cabinet members before making the decision, and how the notification did not even have the signature of Pakistan President Arif Alvi.
CJP Khosa questioned the government over whether it had just assumed the silence of the 14 members who were not available for the decision, as agreement. The bench also noted that it was only the president of the country who could extend the tenure of the army chief.
Jolted by the sudden judicial threat that has emerged against its benefactor, Khan’s government responded by holding an emergency cabinet meeting, during which its law minister Farogh Naseem resigned from his post so that he could represent the Army chief’s side in the case.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister and President have also approved a new notification for the extension of the Army chief’s tenure by three years.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan seems to have thrown its weight against the further entrenchment of military power at a time when other factors are also aligning in such a manner as to possibly further inflame the situation.
However, may observers have suggested that the move is likely to be reversed soon, and have pointed to some cases in which Pakistan’s courts appear to have toed the Army’s line.
It is widely believed that Pakistan’s judiciary is not independent and often faces interference from the Army and intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Bar Council has already called for a strike next week against the same extension notification, while the country’s student organisations are already scheduled to hold nationwide protests on 29 November regarding separate issues.
If the Pakistan Army, or Khan’s government for that matter, act in a blatantly unlawful manner in order to stifle the country’s supreme court, then such a move could act as a catalyst for another countrywide anti-establishment mass movement, a kind of re-run of the 2007-08 protests which marked the end of Musharraf’s rule.
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