New political history will be written today in Pakistan. Barring some miraculous developments, all is set to see the first-ever removal via a vote of no-confidence of an incumbent prime minister.
As the PM continues his direct communication with the public through jalsas, televised speeches and meetings with journalists, he and his team insist they can defeat the combined opposition’s no-confidence motion. Interestingly, another first in Pakistan’s political history will be the same-day election of the Punjab’s chief minister. The likely winner there will be Hamza Shahbaz who was nominated by the combined opposition after the last-minute desertion of Pervaiz Elahi from the opposition camp. The CM seat had become vacant after CM Usman Buzdar handed in his resignation on Imran Khan’s instructions.
The emergence of the vote of no-confidence was inevitable; Imran Khan being pushed to the wall being the enabling context within which the opposition could play out its card. Rare unity emerged among the opposition as the PTI government found itself stuck amidst ‘neutrality’. This meant that the PTI that played its politics with the help of powerful directives to its allies, was to lose its simple majority in the National Assembly. Foreseeing his government’s political collapse after the end of the support, the angry PM’s paradoxical stance was clear: he spoke of ‘neutrality’ as a negative element that only animals possessed – and yet was himself asking openly for an unconstitutional step: non-civilian involvement in the political affairs of the country. The opposition liked the given circumstances since it meant they could play their cards in an even playing field.
Pakistan’s power game has been a farce for several long decades – a musical chairs choreographed by non-political managers. The beneficiaries have been different; then it was Imran Khan, now it’s seemingly the combined opposition. Yet one new factor this time has been the US factor – loud and clear. Reportedly, early March a senior State Department official called on Pakistan Ambassador Asad Majeed with two note-takers and conveyed the following message: the US cannot work with Imran Khan. The ambassador was apparently also told that if Imran Khan were to lose a vote of no-confidence Pakistan could be forgiven but if he survived it then the US would ensure his isolation and perhaps he would be isolated by the EU and the UK as well.
This means the State Department official was demanding change in the government, a regime change. Nothing less. And he apparently hoped that the regime change would come through the no-confidence vote. Reportedly, the official made it clear that this was a message from his leadership and the ambassador’s response would be conveyed to “his leadership” meaning the White House. Pakistan’s ambassador is said to have tried to convince the US official that their primary allegation regarding the PM going to Russia on his own without a government consensus was incorrect but the official did not accept his explanation.
The top secret cipher cable addressed to the foreign secretary was received in Pakistan on March 8. As is the practice, it was copied to the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister, the army chief and the chairman joint chiefs of staff committee. There was no reaction until March 27. After letting the matter remain dormant for almost 20 days, the prime minister raised it at his March 27 jalsa. The PM and his team alleged this was a conspiracy hatched by the US with the Pakistani opposition. The conspiracy story was and continues to be built on meetings between Pakistani politicians and diplomats.
The PM has vowed to fight till the end – invoking morality, rule of law, independent foreign policy and self-respect plus corruption by the opposition. There are many holes in the government’s allegations but there are many takers of it as well.
This was no ordinary cable. Of the dozen plus senior diplomats I spoke to, it seems it is a very unusual, obnoxious and unacceptable message that was apparently formally conveyed to the ambassador so that it was communicated to Islamabad. And he did just that. It is believed that all that is out in the public sphere – plus more – was said. The Americans did convey they wanted the PM out etc. What was expected from the PM when the US was sending a message of his exit as a prerequisite and his isolation plus dealing with it “head-on” in case he stayed on? It is perplexing that the US was sending this message to the very man they wanted out. Arrogance perhaps? So what did they expect? Did Washington believe they had allies within the system who needed to get this message loud and clear? That someone could do something about it?
Meanwhile, the government used this message to conflate the US demand and the vote of no-confidence. The government had to respond to such an outrageous message from the US but it chose to use it for political purposes. And now standing on shifting sands the government is fighting back. Instead of a wisely and firmly worded demarche, the government – which is losing its survival game – is pulling down all covers from Pakistan’s players within and those outside who have for decades been the chronic cause of Pakistan’s political instability.
The complex truth is that wherever the combined opposition stands is understandable given what happened in 2018 and the government’s anger is understood since it played along with the power brokers of the country.
The curtains on this one will leave great turbulence on Pakistan’s power-political landscape. All the players, including Imran Khan, will survive to fight another day.
The writer is a senior journalist. She tweets @nasimzehra and can be reached at:
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