A battle of narratives

January 29, 2023

The PDM-PTI tussle heats up as caretaker setups are sworn in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

A battle of narratives


he Pakistan Democratic Movement coalition and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf are locked in a battle of popular narratives. The coming weeks and months promise to be even more eventful than the recent ones as both sides prepare for the upcoming elections for the provincial assemblies of the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Ever since the PTI lost its federal government in April 2022 through the first-ever successful no-confidence motion in Pakistan’s history, it has been relentlessly pursuing a one-point objective: the calling of general election. On being voted out, Imran Khan, the PTI chairman, had directed his party’s members of the National Assembly to resign; 123 of them apparently did. However, the National Assembly speaker had accepted only 11 resignations by August 2022. The PTI had filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court, seeking directions for the speaker to forward the 123 ‘accepted’ resignations to the Election Commission of Pakistan. This would have enabled the Election Commission of Pakistan to de-notify the PTI lawmakers and required it to issue a schedule for by-elections. However, the then IHC chief, Justice Athar Minallah, had rejected the petition.

Later, the PTI had filed another petition in the Supreme Court against the IHC decision for not giving a declaration that the acceptance of resignations of 123 lawmakers by the then deputy speaker had taken effect and that the incumbent speaker had no power or jurisdiction regarding verification of their intention.

A battle of narratives

During various hearings, the honourable judges of the Islamabad High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan had advised the PTI leaders to review their decision to resign and return to the parliament to settle the political issues there. Imran Khan and his advisors, however, had refused to budge.

Come January, Imran Khan shocked his supporters and opponents alike by announcing that, “We have decided to go back to the parliament. Otherwise, the PDM will install a federal caretaker government after consulting Raja Riaz.” The purpose behind the move, he said, was to contest the offices of the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the leader of opposition. However, this change of heart proved too late. In about two weeks, the NA speaker accepted and forwarded a large number of resignations to the Election Commission in three phases. The ECP has now de-notified nearly 80 of the MNAs. Raja Riaz, a PTI dissident, is now likely to remain the leader of the opposition. The PTI leaders intend to appeal to the courts that had advised them to go back to the parliament.

If the Supreme Court takes up the case, it may take several weeks to decide it. This could serve the PDM’s purpose of easing the pressure for general elections. If the court does not grant relief to the PTI, the PDM will get to install a caretaker federal government for three months ahead of the next elections in 2023.

Imran Khan repeated the same mistake in the Punjab, not heeding the advice given by former chief minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, who had told him not to compel him to dissolve the assembly for another couple of months. Elahi had argued that such a move would create several problems for the allies. However, Khan did not relent and Elahi was forced to dissolve the assembly. The Election Commission of Pakistan then appointed Mohsin Raza Naqvi as the caretaker chief minister. Even though Naqvi is related to the Chaudhrys, Khan and Moonis Elahi had objected to it soon after the PDM proposed his name. Elahi had also announced that he would move court against the appointment.

A battle of narratives

Imran Khan has developed a narrative against the Election Commission of Pakistan and Punjab’s caretaker chief minister. If he loses the elections, he will accuse the ECP and the caretaker setup of rigging. If he wins, he will claim a decisive victory over the PDM. However, the results of local government elections in Sindh should be encouraging for the PDM.

Interestingly, Elahi had told Khan that he and other PTI leaders were safe in the Punjab for as long as the PTI supported the provincial government. A reminder came on Wednesday morning when police arrested PTI stalwart Chaudhry Fawad Hussain from Lahore after a case was registered against him in Islamabad. A case was also registered against a Elahi’s cousin, Chaudhry Wajahat Hussain, and his son, Musa Elahi. More arrests might follow. A large number of PTI activists are now camped in front of Khan’s Zaman Park, Lahore, residence, ostensibly to resist a bid for his arrest.

For his part, Naqvi has reshuffled the provincial bureaucracy, transferring several important deputy commissioners and district police officers. Former interior minister, Ejaz Shah, has commented: “We had advised Khan against his decision of quitting assemblies. It has just started. More [PTI] leaders will be arrested in the near future.” Khan and a bunch of senior PTI leaders have been nominated in several cases and remain on bail.

Khan and other PTI stalwarts might find Khyber Pakhtunkhwa safer considering former chief ministers Mehmood Khan and Akram Durrani have agreed on Azam Khan as the caretaker chief minister. Azam Khan has been sworn in.

In another interesting development, the Election Commission of Pakistan has written a letter to the Punjab governor, requesting him to choose the date for elections to the provincial assembly between April 9 and 13. The ECP will write a similar letter to the KP governor.

However, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the leading PDM component in the Punjab, is currently suffering from a weak organisational structure. The PML-N top guns have assigned the responsibility for reorganising the party to Maryam Nawaz. However, there is very little time for the task. The PML-N, once the largest party in the province, has developed a culture of running party affairs through a small band. Today, party workers get to see only the likes of Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal, Rana Sanaullah, Rana Tanvir and Khawaja Saad Rafiq. All of them belong to central or upper Punjab. None of the PML-N leaders from southern Punjab is seen centre stage. If the pattern continues, the PML-N could face a serious setback in the southern Punjab in the fast approaching elections.

The KP, now a PTI stronghold, was once PML-N bastion. However, the organisational structure was allowed to disintegrate after Nawaz Sharif’s removal. Engr Ameer Muqam is currently the only party leader from KP seen in the party meetings. Elections for the KP Assembly are expected to be held in the third or fourth week of April. The PML-N leaders have to reach out to its voters on a war footing.

Interestingly, the PML-N has apparently decided not to contest the National Assembly by-elections. This is likely to harm the party as leaving the field open for the PTI will demotivate the PML-N workers. It will also dent Maryam’s efforts to reorganise the party. The PML-N, as well as other PDM components, including the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and the Awami National Party have to evolve a better strategy.

Imran Khan has developed a narrative against the ECP and the caretaker chief minister of the Punjab. If he loses the elections, he will accuse the ECP and the caretaker setup of the rigging. If he wins, he will claim decisive victory over the PDM. However, the results of local government elections in Sindh should be encouraging for the PDM. These indicate that Khan’s popularity has been overrated and that effective campaigning can defeat the PTI.

However, things may change over the coming weeks. The PDM might opt for early elections in view of the growing economic pressures. Rumours are also circulating of a possible delay in holding elections. However, every mainstream party has ruled out such a possibility.

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

A battle of narratives