Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 09, 2021
The political slugfest in Pakistan

The adage “a week is a long time in politics” applies to Pakistan much more than it does to any other country in the world. The political climate in Pakistan can change virtually overnight. Those who strut about like they are unassailable suddenly became vulnerable, and those who were thought to be in disarray and retreating, suddenly seem to be storming the citadel of their opponents, even threatening to over-run it. By mid-February, it appeared as if the 10 party Opposition conglomerate Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was losing steam and was in serious danger of falling apart. But by the end of the first week of March, the political game in Pakistan had been completely overturned. The political drama that unfolded in Pakistan over the last couple of weeks, along with all the Byzantine intrigues and court conspiracies for which Islamabad is quite notorious, is emblematic of the vicissitudes of Pakistan’s politics. While it now appears that the endgame has started for Imran Khan’s ‘selected’ regime, what remains unclear is the climax of this endgame.

After PDM’s Lahore jalsa last December, which while impressive, wasn’t enough to shake the Imran Khan government or its controllers in the Pakistan Army, the Opposition seemed to have lost its way. There was no clarity on how to move forward against the government. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was in favour of using not just the street but also the normal political processes to pin down the government. But other Opposition parties, especially Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), wanted to boycott by-elections and Senate polls and confront the government on the streets. Their plan was to bring everything to a grinding halt and create a situation where Imran Khan’s continuance in office became untenable. In the end, a compromise was struck. The PDM would use both the political tools available and mount pressure on the streets through a series of rallies, culminating in a Long March to Islamabad.

Just when the PDM was being written off as a spent force—mostly by the cultists (including in the media) of Imran Khan, but also by some of his detractors—the Opposition pulled a rabbit out of its hat, first during the by-elections in the last week of February and then in the Senate elections on 3rd March. The by-elections were the first real test for Imran Khan, who until then had ridden into power and stayed in power by latching on to the coat-tails of the military establishment. But his feckless governance, his inability to rein in his cronies and stop the mega-scandals that ravaged an already failing economy, coupled with his confrontationist, vindictive politics of victimising political opponents and treating political allies as virtual pariahs, had not gone down well with his sponsors in the military. His tantrums and his nonchalance—he is believed to have blackmailed the military brass that if he goes, they have no fallback option and that they need to learn to live with his choice of an unknown entity like Usman Buzdar as Chief Minister of Punjab—had also caused disquiet among the brass.

Both, because of the pressure that the Opposition had mounted, as well as Imran Khan’s own disastrous political and governance performance, it is believed that the Khakis decided to give him a jolt. They did so not by siding with the Opposition, but by not siding with Imran Khan. The result was that with the dirty-tricks department of the military no longer handling the political management of the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), the by-elections went horribly wrong. The PTI lost a provincial assembly seat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the Opposition candidate from the PMLN. This seat was in Defence Minister and former Chief Minister Pervez Khattak’s home constituency and result reflected the divisions within the Khattak family as well as the PTI. In Sindh, the PPP swept all the seats, increasing their margins of victory. But the biggest blow came in Punjab.

Although both seats—one provincial and one National Assembly—were PMLN seats, the thumb rule of Pakistani politics is that the party that controls the provincial government generally tends to win the by-elections. But this time, things went terribly wrong for PTI. The ruling party lost the by-election in the provincial seat despite using all administrative and other influence. Worse, they resorted to the worst form of election rigging in the National Assembly seat of Daska—intimidating voters, delaying polling in areas where PMLN was likely to win, stuffing ballot boxes, and using police and rangers to tilt the election. When, despite all these tactics, they felt they were still likely to lose, they kidnapped polling officials to change the results from around 20 polling stations. But there was so much furore that ultimately even the normally compliant and compromised Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was forced to countermand the election after passing severe strictures against the local administration and even summoned the top provincial bureaucracy to explain the electoral malpractices. This was a huge setback to the Imran Khan government and even some of his advocates and apologists lampooned him for his sheer incompetence and ineptness in handling the election for one measly seat. The Teflon image of Imran Khan was badly damaged because he was seen as someone who had raved and ranted against election rigging but had now broken new ground in fixing elections.

The setback in Daska—it was seen as a rebuff from the military establishment—was followed by the ECP taking a strong stand before the constitutional reference that PTI had filed before the Supreme Court of Pakistan to allow for open balloting in the Senate elections. At one time the Supreme Court judges (who are even more compromised and compliant, even obedient, to the diktats of the military establishment) seemed inclined to mutilate the much abused constitution and allow open balloting. But then suddenly the Supreme Court gave an ambiguous order that allowed the ECP to hold the Senate polls through secret balloting. The hands-off approach of the military in Daska followed by the sudden discovery of spine by ECP along with  the Supreme Court ruling on the reference was all seen as the ‘establishment’ becoming neutral, in large part to show Imran Khan his place.

The PDM had already prepared its game plan for the Senate polls and was trying to win over disgruntled PTI members and some of PTI allies to give another jolt to Imran Khan. Most of the Senate polls results were more or less in conformity with the strength of the different political formations in Pakistan. But in the end it all came down to one Senate seat election—the Islamabad seat—in which the electoral college is the entire National Assembly. The PDM masterstroke was to pick former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani as its candidate against Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh. The two candidates couldn’t be more different. Shaikh had served as finance minister under Gilani. But unlike Gilani he was seen as a distant, stand-offish man who parachuted into corridors of power and disappeared as suddenly as he appeared. He had no political capital, unlike Gilani who had family connections across the political spectrum and nurtured friendships in power and in opposition. Most of all, those fuming over Imran Khan’s supercilious and arrogant way of dealing with elected lawmakers saw a golden opportunity to administer a defeat to Imran Khan. The PDM lured some members of the ruling coalition with promises of party tickets in the next elections, others were given other political IOUs, and still others (MQM members) were tempted with cabinet positions and development funds in Sindh.

While Imran Khan boasted that a secret election would see the Opposition lose big, it was clear that he was panicking before the election. He climbed down his high horse and started meeting MNAs (many of them from his own party whom he didn’t even know existed), reaching out to coalition partners and appeasing them and giving in to their political demands, and promising development funds to his own party lawmakers (something he had criticised in Opposition as a political bribe). On the eve of the election, there were reports that phone calls from private numbers (generally these calls are made by the infamous intelligence agencies) were made to ruling party lawmakers who were likely to vote for Gilani. According to some reports, the PDM leaders contacted the military brass and remonstrated with them and asked whether the neutral role was over. Apparently they were informed that a few zealous officials stepped out of line and that they would be reined in. On the election day, some of the potential voters for Gilani seemed to have been dissuaded, but in the end the Opposition managed to defeat Shaikh, dealing a body blow to Imran Khan.

The defeat of a sitting finance minister is not just a vote of no confidence in the economic policies of the government—ruling party politicians have for long been complaining that the economic management of PTI government has destroyed their politics and their constituents heap abuse on them for the economic distress that people are facing—but also seen as a tectonic shift in the political equations in Pakistan. Most of all, because the loss of the Islamabad seat means that the government has lost the majority in the National Assembly, Imran Khan was left with no option but to seek a vote of confidence.

The honourable thing to do would have been to resign, but then this is Imran Khan. The PDM decided to boycott the confidence vote and Imran managed to ‘win’ it with 176. But this victory means little because many people who otherwise might be inclined to vote against Imran wouldn’t have voted against him at this time because they would have then lost their seats. If general elections are going to be imminent after a confidence motion, then they would probably vote against Imran Khan, but until then they will not show their hand and lose their seats. And herein lies the problem for PDM. While Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman want fresh elections as soon as possible, Asif Zardari and PPP are more inclined to go in for an in-house change. For one, PPP doesn’t want to risk its government in Sindh on a fresh election. For another, the political grapevine in Islamabad is that Asif Zardari is trying to get a PPP Prime Minister (either Bilawal Bhutto or someone else) to run a coalition until the next election. This, it is believed, would resurrect the PPP. On the flip side, Imran Khan has damaged the economy so badly that fixing it won’t be easy and will force whoever takes over the government right now to expend a lot of political capital, something that PMLN doesn’t want to do because it would mean going into elections in 2023 with the baggage of inflicting more pain on the people.

The only thing positive that could come out of an in-house change is that it will lower the political temperature by ending the fascistic political victimisation that Imran Khan and his cronies have unleashed on the Opposition, and perhaps pave the way for somewhat better governance with a degree of political consensus. Imran Khan is, however, threatening that if he is ousted, he will take to the streets. But will he be able to muster the crowds and agitate the streets without the military establishment backing him? Unlikely. The fact that his ouster will come only if the military establishment allows it means that it will ensure he doesn’t have what it takes to launch any major street agitation. But, of course, before he is ousted, Imran Khan, given his fascist tendencies will use all his powers to ramp up the confrontation with the Opposition, hounding them, victimising them, slapping fake cases on them, unleashing his abusive trolls on them, even using physical violence against them, which will only worsen the political climate and make his continuation even more untenable.

If indeed there is going to be an in-house change, chances are that it won’t be through a vote of no confidence. There is some talk in Islamabad that when push comes to shove, the military, using the ECP and the judiciary, will drop the sword of the foreign funding case on Imran’s head. This way he can be disqualified and an in-house change can be engineered without having to disqualify any member who votes against the ruling party. But all talk of an in-house change will remain just talk until the Opposition can agree on the terms of engagement and rules of the game with the military establishment. For now, there is wind in the sails of the Opposition. It is now all set to go for the Long March to ramp up pressure on Imran Khan. Before that, there will be the election for the Senate chairman. If that too goes against PTI then the writing on the wall will become even clearer. But if the PTI manages to win that election, it will mean things have still not been settled on how the cookie will crumble if Imran Khan is ousted. There is also some speculation that before anything happens in Islamabad, there could be some power play in either Balochistan or in Punjab. This could be a confidence building measure to smoothen the path for a deal in Islamabad.

Clearly, Imran Khan now looks weak and vulnerable, his bombastic fighting words notwithstanding. He had lost his lustre of being Pakistan's knight in shining armour, the man who would fix everything in Pakistan and take it towards a glorious future. As things stand, it is unlikely that he will survive this year in office. If he does, then he will probably hobble across the finish line in 2023. But if the political loose ends are tied up between the military establishment, PDM, coalition partners of Imran Khan ( e.g. the PMLQ is pitching for the chief ministership in Punjab), and also the disgruntled cohort in PTI, then the end of this ‘selected’ regime will definitely come before the end of 2021.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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