Pakistan’s army chief, arguably the most powerful figure in the nation, will serve at least another six months after the Supreme Court backed down from a high-stakes attempt to limit his influence.
The court ruled Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa could stay on until May, only hours before the leader of the vast military was to be forced into a shock retirement.
The extension paves the way for a potential further three-year term for the chief of army staff in a country where military leaders often run over their allotted time but no prime minister has reached the end of their term.
Pakistan’s armed forces have ruled directly for half of the nation’s 72-year history, carrying out coups against obstreperous civilian leaders and boosting favourites when not in full control.
Under Gen Bajwa the army has been accused of a widespread crackdown on civil liberties and engineering the 2018 election to ensure a victory for Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The military denies any meddling.
The future of Gen Bajwa, 59, had been thrown into doubt by the court’s surprise move to block a fresh three-year term granted in August.
The court said the government had not provided enough reasoning for the extension and that no single figure was essential to ensuring Pakistan’s safety in the region.
Newspapers, which have suffered from increasing censorship and often refer to the armed forces in coded language, declared it a seismic moment in the long-standing struggle between civilian and military arms of government.
“Unprecedented questions are being raised, threatening to upend the accepted status quo,” read an editorial by Dawn.
But the court on Thursday relented, giving an interim extension and setting Imran Khan’s government six months to bring legislation clarifying if an army chief could stay on.
“We are showing judicial restraint although there is no provision in law to grant an extension,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa told the court. “We leave this matter to parliament to make law regarding this.”
The relationship between an army chief and prime minister is historically a fractious one. In a concession to Pakistan’s democratic institutions, considered supreme in the constitution, the prime minister picks one of three candidates selected for them by the military.
The leader of the previous government, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was ousted in a 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf, whom he had chosen believing him to be the least power-hungry of the trio.
In 2016, Mr Sharif successfully fought off a campaign to grant the then-military chief an extension. Two years later he was forced to step down over corruption charges linked to the Panama Papers, in a case supporters say was backed by the armed forces.
Mr Khan’s government, which contains many members who served in periods of military rule, is considered the most aligned with the wishes of Pakistan’s armed forces in decades.
The 67-year-old welcomed the court’s decision. He said: “Today must be a great disappointment to those who expected the country to be destabilised by a clash of institutions.”
Analysts said that Gen Bajwa was likely to eventually win another three year-term, despite rising opposition to Mr Khan’s government both in and out of parliament at a time of spiralling inflation.
“Given the political dynamics of Pakistan, where it’s tough to push back hard against the military, six months should be plenty of time to allow Islamabad to do what it has to do to get the extension for Gen Bajwa that the government had wanted from the start,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Centre.