Political power in Pakistan is not so much about the arithmetic in assemblies, as it is about the algebra of politics. Prime Minister Imran Khan forgot this iron law of Pakistani politics when he assumed that the support of the Pakistan Army to his regime was a constant. While the Pakistan Army is a constant in Pakistani politics, its value keeps changing depending on its corporate interests and the circumstances surrounding the government of the day. In that sense, the military is more of a potent parameter whose support cannot be taken for guaranteed. Whilst Imran Khan is now starting to understand this, he appears more focused on the math in the assemblies to win the No Confidence Motion
(NCM) that has been moved by the Opposition parties against his government. He thinks he might be able to cobble the numbers by hook or by crook and survive. However, given that the equation is changing, neither the math nor the algebra will go in his favour if the crucial parameter doesn’t work in his favour.
For now, the Pakistan Army has ostensibly adopted a position of neutrality
. There is no more talk of the army being on the proverbial ‘one page’ with the Imran regime. Neutrality, however, has muddled the political equation. At one level, it means the army is present in the equation, but for now will not influence any of the other variables. The problem is that no one is quite sure how the various variables—allies, disgruntled elements of the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), and even some elements in the opposition ranks—will behave without a wink, nudge, or push from the military establishment. At another level, all things being equal, neutrality of the army works against the incumbents which have depended upon its support for gaining and staying in power. It was perhaps this factor that prompted the outburst from Imran Khan where he took a swipe at the army and said only animals are neutral
The problem is that no one is quite sure how the various variables—allies, disgruntled elements of the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), and even some elements in the opposition ranks—will behave without a wink, nudge, or push from the military establishment.
A numbers game
As things stand, the deck seems to be loaded against Imran Khan. The PTI has only 155 Members of National Assembly (MNAs)—17 short of a simple majority in a house of 342. The three main Opposition parties—Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA led by the Jamiat Ulema Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman) have together the same number of MNAs. Imran’s coalition partners—Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ), Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), and a few smaller parties and independents—who were all corralled by the military in 2018 to support Imran, give him a majority. However, it increasingly looks that he can no longer depend on some of the bigger coalition partners support.
Neither the PMLQ (5) nor the MQM (7) have come out openly in his support and are believed to be negotiating a good deal with the Opposition to switch sides. The BAP’s (5) support is also not assured. These three parties alone can tilt the NCM in the favour of the Opposition. Add to this reports of a large number of dissident MNAs within the PTI—the numbers range from 20 to 40—who are not only angry with Imran but also do not see a political future for themselves if they stick with him, and it is clear that the arithmetic will go against Imran. Of course, if at the last minute the military decides to once again rescue the government, then the math will also change.
What is complicating the equation, or the situation, is not so much whether Imran Khan will survive but more about what will happen after he is voted out. The problem for Pakistan and its military is that if Imran manages to hold on to power, he has already threatened
to unleash all his fascistic fantasies against his political rivals. Not that he hasn’t already displayed his vicious, vituperative and vindictive side by victimising his opponents—jailing them by misusing the anti-corruption watchdog National Accountability Bureau, planting fake cases against some of them, muzzling the media, unleashing his troll armies against anyone who opposes him, and ushering in draconian laws. However, there are real fears that he will go berserk in hounding the Opposition if he survives the NCM. Worse, he could also target the military top brass. He has already taken pot shots at the Army Chief and hinted at replacing him
just as the Caliph Omar had replaced the Islamic general Khalid bin Walid in the middle of a military campaign.
The problem for Pakistan and its military is that if Imran manages to hold on to power, he has already threatened to unleash all his fascistic fantasies against his political rivals.
The grapevine is that Imran is seriously thinking of doing a coup within the army by replacing the current Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa with the former ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed who is currently Corps Commander Peshawar. Even if he doesn’t do this immediately, he will in November when Bajwa’s term ends. The Opposition knows that the army under Hameed will be like Imran’s private army and will pull out all stops to win him the next election scheduled in October/November 2023. Inside the army there is a lot of resentment at the way Imran Khan has politicised the military. This has always been a no-go area, a red line that cannot be breached. Any precipitate action by Imran Khan could see the army doing to him what it did to Nawaz Sharif in 1999 when he had sacked Musharraf. What is more, the disquiet in the top brass over Imran playing politics in the army will weigh heavily when it comes to the NCM.
But if Imran Khan is ousted, what will follow? There is as yet no clear road map. Will the current assemblies complete their term, i.e., survive till August 2023? Or will fresh elections be called within a month or two? There are reports that the top Opposition leaders have agreed on a roadmap but what that is no one knows. While the Opposition parties are eager to see Imran’s back, they know that Pakistan is in such a deep economic, political, strategic mess that the Prime Ministership is a crown of thorns. Some terribly tough decisions, which will be extremely unpopular will have to be taken in the next few months. No politician will want to take these decisions a year before the next elections. They would rather that a caretaker government takes the necessary steps, and they can go into elections with a clean slate. However, there are also other more prosaic political complications. Parties and politicians who switch sides want certain guarantees so that it is worth their while to side with the Opposition. Who gets what and who stands as guarantor to these back rooms deals is something that is still not clear. And finally, what is the understanding with the military on the civil-military equation in the future will also need to be worked out.
For now, it seems that many of these questions have been kept pending for after the NCM. Whether this factor changes the algebra of politics and bails out Imran Khan, or whether the numbers are now stacked against him will be known only closer to the date of the NCM. Imran Khan probably knows that it could well be curtains for him. He is, therefore, adopting a two-pronged strategy. The first prong is to prepare for life after ouster. His rhetoric in public speeches is aimed at acquiring the image of an uber Islamist Nationalist who has been done down by the evil and conniving West, corrupt politicians, and a military that sided with enemies of Pakistan. He wants to go down as a patriot who was fighting for Pakistan. The fact that he ran the country into the ground with his feckless administration and his terrible economic management, not to mention crony capitalism that he promoted, is altogether a different matter.
The government is planning to deliberately misinterpret the Constitution to disqualify all the PTI members who intend to vote in favour of the NCM even before they cast their vote.
The second prong is that he won’t go without a fight. He will use every trick in the book, and even those which are not in the book, to try and defeat his opponents. He has already made an empty threat that he will be even more dangerous
if he is ousted. However, no one is buying into that because he will be bottled up if he says or tries anything once he is out of office. Despite that, he is also trying to muddy the waters. He has already planted landmines
in the economy that will explode in the face of whoever succeeds him. The negotiations
with IMF have stalled because of the populist measures he has taken. His rants
against the West—the EU and US—will poison the well for his successor. However, more than all this, it is the steps that he is planning to take to win the NCM that is creating the spectre of a confrontation that could easily demolish even the façade of democracy.
According to reports, the government is planning to deliberately misinterpret the Constitution to disqualify all the PTI members who intend to vote in favour of the NCM even before they cast their vote. At the very least, their votes will not be counted by the Speaker. This will, of course, be challenged in the Supreme Court. However, until the court reaches its verdict, the Speaker’s ruling will hold. There is also a plan to hold a huge public meeting outside the Parliament. This is meant to intimidate not just PTI members but also the Opposition and allies. The Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has warned
that MNAs will have to go through the crowd to reach Parliament, and after casting their vote make their way back through the same crowd. If this isn’t a clear threat of violence against MNAs, what is?
With the Imran regime is planning to hold its public rally
on 27 March, it is clear that the NCM will probably be on either 28 or 29 March. Meanwhile, the Opposition too has decided to fight fire with fire. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has issued an order
to his party to gather in Islamabad to prevent PTI from hijacking the NCM. A small trailer of the sort of confrontation
that is building was visible on 10 March when Islamabad police raided the Parliamentary lodges to arrest a couple of JUIF MNAs. A furious Maulana ordered his cadres to jam all roads in Pakistan. It seems the military finally stepped in, got the arrested MNAs released and Fazlur Rehman asked his cadres to end the blockades. There is a real concern amongst the Opposition that Imran Khan could resort to this underhand tactic of arresting a number of MNAs on trumped up charges to prevent them from casting their vote in the NCM. If that happens, all hell could break loose, and that would leave the military with no choice but to step in directly.
With the Imran regime is planning to hold its public rally on 27 March, it is clear that the NCM will probably be on either 28 or 29 March.
As things stand, the NCM is still two weeks away. During this time the OIC conference is going to be held in Islamabad. There is some concern that Imran Khan could use the presence of over 50 OIC foreign ministers to sack Bajwa. It would be difficult for the army to respond with so many foreign dignitaries present. Even if that doesn’t happen, a lot could change in the next two weeks during which Pakistan will be on the tenterhooks. With all sorts of fake and planted news floating around, the uncertainty is only increasing. Tweets by journalists known to be mouth pieces
of the military establishment are only adding to the confusion because no one knows if they are trying to deflect and deceive the ruling party or are actually breaking some news. Others known to oppose Imran Khan are spinning their own yarns
of how it’s all a done deal to oust the regime. Events are changing by the hour and day. Although, regardless of what happens in the NCM, Pakistan is likely to see a lot of turmoil in the weeks and months ahead.
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