More turbulence on the cards?

January 3, 2021

The rigid positions taken by both the government and the opposition for the last several months would certainly spill over to 2021

Once again Pakistan is facing a political crisis. Politicians have yet to take steps to end the uncertainty and instability that could eventually threaten democracy.

The rigid positions taken by both the government and the opposition for the last several months would certainly spill over to 2021. Politicians are known to resolve difficult issues through negotiations and by making compromises, but in this case, there is frequent talk of confrontation rather than reconciliation. In fact, the new year could turn out to be even more challenging than the previous one, adding to the numerous problems already confronting Pakistan.

Two dates in 2021 would be worth watching. January 31 is the deadline given by the 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), to Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign or face the ‘long march’ by its supporters to Islamabad in a bid to paralyze his government. The other important date falls during the first week of March when the Senate election is scheduled to be held.

The PDM is desperate to send the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government packing through street agitation before the election as the ruling party will then get a majority in the Senate. The opposition parties presently have a majority in the Senate. The change will give the PTI the majority in both houses of parliament needed to secure passage of legislation that currently gets blocked in the Senate.

Another option suggested by the PDM is to ensure that the Senate election is stalled through en masse resignation by its legislators from the National and Provincial Assemblies. The process has already been initiated by asking the MNAs and MPAs to deposit their resignation letters with their respective party leadership by December 31. However, this exercise may fail to disrupt the Senate polls even though the electoral college will be rendered incomplete as a result of such resignations.

The government was considering holding the Senate election in February and through a show of hands instead of the secret ballot to pre-empt the PDM’s march on Islamabad, but this was found to contravene constitutional provisions. The prime minister made a statement to this effect and the federal cabinet discussed the issue for approaching the Supreme Court to seek a ruling on holding of the Senate poll before time. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan made it clear that it intended to hold the Senate election on schedule in March as it has done in the past.

Two dates in 2021 would be worth watching. January 31 which is the deadline given by the PDM, to Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign or face the ‘long march’. The other important date falls during the first week of March when the Senate election is scheduled to be held.

Considering the PDM deadline of January 31 for the prime minister to quit and the latter’s refusal to do so, February 2021 would be an eventful month. The PDM plan is to undertake the ‘long march’ in February to oust the government before the Senate poll in early March. The government, for its part, will do everything within its means to forestall such a possibility. This would lead to further confrontation between the two sides and possibly violence. Any bloodshed during the agitation would galvanize the opposition and put the government on the defensive.

The question of sustaining unity in the PDM ranks is often raised. The alliance includes left-of-centre, centrist and rightist parties. Divergent views have been expressed by component parties on important issues such as taking part in the Senate election and contesting bye-elections to the five National Assembly and two Provincial Assembly seats announced by the Election Commission to complete the electoral college for the Senate vote. The PPP, which has promised to abide by PDM decisions, would suffer the most if its government in Sindh dissolves the Provincial Assembly or if it doesn’t take part in the Senate election.

A blame-game will start if the PDM breaks up or falters in its bid to overthrow the government. The government has many resources at its command and is ready to exploit any differences that might crop up in the PDM or in its component parties. PDM head Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F has already had to deal with a challenge from within its ranks that led to the expulsion of four senior party leaders led by former MNA Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, a former Council of Islamic Ideology Council chief. Those expelled may try to bring together other factions and dissidents.

This is not to say that the PTI is a united and disciplined party. Imran Khan is the bond between all those who flocked to the PTI before the July 2018 when they realised that it had a significant chance to come into power. The prime minister will have to work harder to stop groupings in the party and start appeasing the troublesome. It is hard to imagine many of them staying loyal to him if the realisation dawns upon them that the PTI government’s days are numbered.

It is in such circumstances that the role of the establishment comes into play. The army chief has said that the military believes in democracy and will support the democratic government. However, it may be forced to act if the situation due to the PDM agitation gets out of control. All politicians, whether in or out of government, will keep an eye on the so-called ‘referee’ to whom Imran Khan used to refer when he was holding his 126-day ‘dharna’ or protest sit-in in a bid to oust the elected government of Nawaz Sharif.

The ‘referee’ could make the two sides resolve the issues through talks or think of other means to prevent violence and save the economy from further harm. The judiciary could get involved as well. In such a scenario the decision-making would shift away from the hands of the politicians.


The writer is resident   editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

More turbulence on the cards?