Déjà Vu

January 01, 2023

PDM-PTI tussle will continue during the election year

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midst rumours of introduction of a ‘technocrat’ setup and the likely deferral of general elections, political parties continue to wage war against familiar rivals.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is still trying to press the government for early elections and to mend fences with the military establishment. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government is trying to overcome the economic crunch and counter Khan’s multiple narratives before going for the general election. Till date, both have failed to achieve their objectives. The future is uncertain.

For their part, the security forces are trying to deal with a new wave of terror attacks by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch insurgent groups. The country witnessed a 51 percent increase in terrorist attacks in 2022. On Wednesday, the Pakistan Army held an extraordinary meeting of the corps commanders to review the situation. The top brass resolved that the menace of terrorism be uprooted with the help of the people of Pakistan. To combat terrorism, Pakistan Army might launch an intelligence-based operation against some terror networks and their supporters. For this it will need political support. In their recent speeches, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari have said terrorism will be eradicated and indicated that their parties will extend complete support to the army in this regard.

Political circles are abuzz with reports of a likely delay in the holding of next general elections due in October 2023. For various reasons, the chances of such a move are slim at best. For one, technocrat-led governments have been tried in the past and have never proved successful. Gen Ayub Khan was the first to try this. Later, Gen Ziaul Haq included several powerful technocrats in his team. In the 1990s, Moeen Qureshi was brought in as a caretaker prime minister and had several technocrats in his team. He ended up imposing new taxes and paying debt instalments before leaving Pakistan.

When Gen Musharraf decided to hold elections in 2002, he and his aides, led by the then ISI director general Ehsanul Haq, decided on a parliamentary form of government with Shaukat Aziz, another technocrat, as prime minister. Initially, they had difficulty getting him elected as prime minister because he had no constituency to contest a direct election. Therefore, he served as finance minister in Mir Zafarullah Jamali’s cabinet. Later, he was elected from Attock on a seat vacated by Iman Tahir, a niece of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s. He then became the prime minister. A government of technocrats, especially one not answerable to the parliament, has always led the country in the wrong direction.

Technocrats are always needed, particularly in developing countries, but they must work under parliamentary supervision. This is also how things are done in developed nations. No political forces, including the ruling PDM, an alliance of 11 political and religious parties including Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Peoples Party and Jamiat Ulema Islam (Fazl) and the PTI support a technocrat-led setup. Therefore, installing such a setup and delaying the elections is quite unlikely.

The PML-N is trying to regain lost ground in the Punjab. This is going to be a tough challenge because of Nawaz Sharif’s absence and the popularity of Imran Khan’s narrative. Sharif had wanted to return but his party stopped him. PML-N leaders say off the record that he would return once cases against Khan have been decided.

Another rumour about the delay in the general elections by the government can easily be ruled out as well. If the PDM-led federal government attempts such a thing, it will face strong opposition from its own allies and constituents, who want the democratic process
to continue. Therefore, elections will be held in 2023.

The PTI and Imran Khan want early elections. To this end, they had decided to dissolve the provincial assemblies of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on December 23. However, the assemblies are intact and will likely remain intact till June 2023. The PTI also wants the National Assembly speaker to accept the PTI MNAs’ resignations. However, the speaker has told them to come to the parliament in person. It looks unlikely now that all PTI MNAs will tender fresh resignations. If they agree to do so, they will consume several months to complete the process. By that time, the government might be in a position to announce general elections.

Khan and his team are trying hard to mend fences with the military establishment. However, Khan’s stance on the role of former chief of army staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa (retired), is a major hindrance. However, President Arif Alvi, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Asad Umar (son of late Gen Omar), Umar Ayub Khan (grandson of Gen Ayub Khan) and some other retired generals are trying to mediate between the PTI and the military establishment. So far there has been no major breakthrough.

The biggest threat to Imran Khan’s politics is his disqualification in either the foreign funding case or the Tausha Khana case. Another threat to Khan’s popularity stems from his own U-turns on various issues. Audio leaks are denting his popularity, which is expected to decrease with the passage of time.

The PML-N is trying to regain lost ground in the Punjab. This, however, seems a tough challenge because of Nawaz Sharif’s absence from the country and the popularity of Imran Khan’s narrative. Nawaz Sharif had wanted to return but his party stopped him. Some PML-N leaders are saying off the record that he would come back after cases against Khan have been decided. The PML-N also wants to control the Punjab government. For this purpose, Shahbaz has been called back from the UK. The PML-N will try to achieve this target in January or February 2023.

The biggest challenge for the PML-N is to uplift the sinking economy. If it does not deliver on this front, its vote bank will shrink further. Sensing the gravity of the situation, the PML-N has had to call back Ishaq Dar but he, too, seems helpless in the face of enormous problems. Price-hikes, power crisis, inflation, debt payments, rehabilitation of flood survivors and depreciation of the rupee remain major challenges, and the government seems unable to resolve these issues in near future.

Pakistan Peoples Party has its strong vote bank in Sindh but the Punjab, once a PPP stronghold, is still out of its reach. Co-chairman Asif Zardari is trying to attract some PPP dissidents and voters back to his party’s fold. What PPP might find encouraging for now is an increase in Bilawal Bhutto’s popularity. He could emerge as the top political leader in 2023. After the general elections of 2023, the PPP might form the nucleus of a hung parliament. The country could see a coalition government at the Centre with the PPP in driving seat.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at BukhariMubasher

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