Pakistan's Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations/Handout via Reuters
Pakistan's Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations/Handout via Reuters

On Thursday Pakistan witnessed another surrender by the political elite as both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) agreed to vote in parliament for amendments to the Army Act allowing the extension of General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure as Chief of Army Staff (COAS).

It was always expected that both main opposition parties would vote in favor of the legislation as in the end they had found it too difficult to defeat the military establishment. But this development marks the end of the PML-N’s “respect my vote” narrative under which, since the ouster of prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his party had accused the establishment of conspiring against Sharif and bringing Imran Khan to power through a rigged and engineered political discourse.

The same is the case with the PPP, which since the last general elections had alleged that Khan was brought to power through rigging and was merely a puppet of the establishment. However, the PPP has nothing to lose by siding with the establishment and supporting the extension of Bajwa’s tenure. It is the PML-N that has lost its credibility among the new segment of its vote bank that is educated and hails mostly from Punjab province.

This U-turn by the PML-N came at a time when the party was already being criticized by its supporters and by analysts for failing to pose any substantial challenge to the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and its backers. Maryam Nawaz, the political heir of her father Nawaz Sharif, has also been politically inactive, and this shows how the PML-N has backed off from its narrative in exchange for temporary relief.

The establishment, as usual, played the game of carrot and stick by first sending key members of both the PML-N and PPP to prison and then releasing them one by one after getting assurance from both parties that they would conduct their future politics according to the dictation of the invisible forces.

Though Nawaz Sharif in a political letter addressed to Khawaja Asif, the PML-N’s parliamentary leader in the National Assembly, wrote that the party should not make any decision in haste and that the supremacy of parliament should not be compromised, Sharif said the bill should be passed through proper discussion and parliamentary procedures. The same was the case with the PPP, which was all set to endorse the bill and tried to convince its support base that the amendment would only be passed with the approval of parliament. However, it is not rocket science to understand that parliament again is being used as a rubber stump by the opportunistic political elite and the establishment.

The spin wizards of both opposition parties are busy brainwashing their respective vote banks, but the fact is that both the PML-N and PPP have abandoned the masses in exchange for the personal benefits of their leaders. This has been the story for Pakistan since the era of military dictator General Ayub Khan. Other then Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, not even a single politician has stood for principle and refused to compromise.

Though Sharif had initially weakened the Bajwa Doctrine by showing some defiance, later he apparently realized that such a principled stance could lead him to gallows. That assessment may be right, as Sharif is well aware that Zulfikar Bhutto was hanged and then his daughter Benazir Bhutto was killed under mysterious circumstances, so like any other power-politics player, he has decided to mend fences with the establishment.

So now the powerful military establishment will get the Army Act amended just for the sake of the extension of Bajwa’s tenure as COAS. This shows how laws in this country are made and amended just to provide relief to the powerful quarters and the political elite. In fact, this is a glimpse of the real face of the opportunist political elite and the deep state that rules the country though the perception of fear and force.

In any case, it was expected that Bajwa would get the extension, as Sharif being allowed to leave the country and fly to London and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari getting bail were the signals that both opposition parties had finally made deals with the establishment. However, the question remains of whether Prime Minister Imran Khan can survive merely by giving Bajwa his extension.

Khan no doubt played it smart by bringing the extension matter to parliament so all the opposition parties were exposed to the masses, but his chances of surviving in office are actually even slimmer, as the PML-N presenting itself as an acceptable substitute for Khan’s PTI is a threat that cannot be ignored. The PML-N has a natural inclination toward the establishment and both Nawaz and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif play the good-cop-bad-cop game smartly. The elder Sharif is always presented as the democrat while the younger Sharif is depicted as obedient to the invisible forces. So by changing its narrative, the PML-N may get its right-wing vote bank back, which it had lost during its temporary campaign against the status quo.

On the other hand, Bajwa is finally set to get his three-year extension, but he lacks the moral authority, and this will only damage the reputation of his institution, as despite the PML-N and PPP ditching their vote banks there still is growing dissent in society at large against the unconstitutional role of the military establishment in maneuvering the political discourse of the country.

Since Imran Khan is only the public face of this system of hybrid martial law, he eventually could be replaced with another puppet like Shahbaz Sharif or someone from the PPP, and the controlled democracy will continue to flourish. This controlled democracy is more dangerous than an actual dictatorship, as it allows dissent within a certain spectrum and keeps the masses in control through both a puppet government and a puppet opposition. This also gives the establishment immense control on the minds of the masses and the power to create heroes and villains at will.

So by agreeing to vote in favor of the extension of the tenure of the Army Chief, both the PPP and PML-N will in effect be voting for more years of hybrid martial law and controlled democracy. This abandonment of their respective vote banks will only make even stronger the hegemony of the undemocratic forces.

Perhaps January 2, 2020, will be remembered as a black day for democracy in Pakistan when all the so-called pro-democratic political parties and the self-proclaimed democratic leaders agreed to appease the establishment and vote for the amendment to the Army Act. It now will take an entirely new political class and breed of politicians to change the rotten system of the civil and military dictatorship in Pakistan, as the current political parties do not even allow a democratic culture within their own ranks. For now, both Sharif and Zardari may have won relief from the establishment, but they actually have sent democracy to the gallows.

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