SOME political workers and opinion makers are expressing disappointment at what they see as indecent haste with which the main opposition political parties agreed to the legislation that will grant another three-year tenure to the army chief and give legal cover to such moves in the future.
This disappointment, being expressed unequivocally on social media and perhaps in a somewhat softer tone in the mainstream media, is rooted in a misplaced belief that civilian supremacy is a principle close to the heart of our political elite.
If this appears to be an unduly harsh view then allow me to temper it by recalling the resistance that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz offered to those denying the elected representatives their right to make policy and decisions.
One could, and probably with a degree of justification, argue that Mr Sharif lost power and was eventually imprisoned along with his daughter for his defiance of forces committed to snatching away the lion’s share in the country’s power structure in contrast to constitutional provisions.
The mainstream parties have decided to put off the battle for civilian supremacy for another day.
But, even as the father and daughter duo were defying the very powerful forces, their efforts were in turn being resisted by an influential quarter within the party that was advocating a softly, softly approach and was opposed to ‘confrontation’.
These powerful figures within the PML-N were rather expediently terming ‘confrontation’ the stance of their leader aimed at asserting civilian supremacy and adhering to the rule of law and principles enshrined in the Constitution.
Two of the senior most PML-N leaders Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan led this camp. In a twist of irony, Nisar was punished for his ‘crime’ of openly disagreeing with the leadership, while the other with identical views was given charge of the party when Nawaz Sharif was deposed.
This difference of opinion was evident when Shahbaz Sharif led thousands of protesting PML-N workers away from the airport as Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz arrived in Pakistan, after their sentencing, to surrender and begin their jail term before the 2019 election.
If the bloodline was enough to give Shahbaz Sharif the party’s reins, Nawaz Sharifs critical illness empowered him to cut a deal. Once family pressure — reportedly his mother’s proved pivotal — broke Nawaz Sharif’s will not to seek medical treatment abroad, the rest was easy.
In autumn last year, the top leadership of the opposition parties was invited to a meeting with a powerful figure at a ‘safe house’ reportedly on Margalla Road in Islamabad. They dropped all they were doing and rushed to the meeting.
The opposition may have been disappointed as they were expecting to be greeted by the top man; it turned out to be his key deputy who was credited with so much of the groundwork before and after the election to ensure the positive outcome we are living with today.
The man enjoying premier status among intelligent men said he wanted to open a direct line of communication with the opposition and, in an oblique manner, distanced his institution from the hounding of the opposition.
This man, who may have unselfishly opened a dialogue with the opposition, is one of the likely beneficiaries of the extension legislation if continuity in national security institutions is seen as vital for the well-being of the nation in three years’ time too.
If the detractors of the current bonhomie and spirit of reconciliation across the aisle had looked carefully enough they would have saved themselves a lot of angst; the writing was on the wall when the main opposition parties quietly abandoned the JUI-F’s Azadi march led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
The months of November and December of 2019 suddenly brought much-needed respite for the entire spectrum of the opposition with major leaders’ incarceration coming to an end and, in Mr Sharif’s case, permission to travel abroad.
This was followed by release on bail of PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, his sister and the party’s de facto second in command Feryal Talpur. An ordinance curtailing the powers of the National Accountability Bureau was also promulgated.
(Experts are divided over the question of whether this ordinance if approved by parliament will only shelter bureaucrats, businessmen and important members of the governing PTI or will also bring some relief for the opposition which has been facing partisan ‘accountability’ for months.)
Among other signs of possible reconciliation between the establishment and political parties that their critics missed was the change in stance of some ISPR-approved defence experts who once stood for ruthless accountability and were now lambasting the PTI for hounding the opposition.
When the Supreme Court led by chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa took up a petition to block the extension announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan, there was the briefest of flutters in many a heart that something big was afoot but the court then allowed the chief of army staff to continue in office subject to parliamentary approval.
All through these developments, Maryam Nawaz has stayed silent and the only time she has spoken was to say her father’s illness and treatment would remain her top priority. Keeping in mind the circumstances in which she lost her mother, who would wish to judge her.
Some PML-N insiders who back this reconciliation process insist they have been assured a share in power either through an in-house change or fresh elections or one followed by the other, even if they are unable to talk through any mechanics of how this will happen.
And in return, the mainstream parties have decided to put off the battle for civilian supremacy for another day. For now, they will be content with ‘sharing’ power in the larger ‘national interest’ — such are the imperatives of the national security state.
Ergo, barring dramatic developments, and despite the conscientious objections of a handful of nationalist parties, the legislation will go through whether with the active support or abstention of the mainstream opposition parties.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2020