A parliamentary market

March 20, 2022

If there’s one thing politicians in Pakistan can never learn, it‘s lessons from history

A parliamentary market

Pakistan’s political history appears to repeat itself frequently. But our politicians, whichever side of the aisle they are seated at in the assembly, fail to learn from it. In the process, the system continues to pay the price for their failings.

Abraham Lincoln believed in the “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. Here, the politics seems to revolve around the star politician: ‘buy’ the politician, ‘for’ the politician. Given the amount of money involved in buying and selling, a political stock exchange would have crashed quite quickly.

What happened in 1989 can very well happen again, irrespective of the outcome. In 1989, several MNAs were ‘purchased’ for the vote of no confidence against then prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Today, it is Imran Khan’s turn. There are hardly a few MNAs in the assembly today who witnessed the scenes 33 years ago.

The only difference between the two episodes is the ‘neutrality’ of the umpire. In 1989, the entire establishment, from the presidency to other powerful quarters, was allegedly siding with the opposition. Today, the scenario is somewhat different. But many still believe that it has a lot to do with the post-October, 2021, situation, when for the first time in three years, the civil-military relationship looked strained over the appointment of the Inter-Services Intelligence director general.

In a developing story, one can never be sure of what lies ahead. But one thing is certain: the adverse impact the political crisis is going to have on an already grave economic situation. Politics and economy rise and fall together. Over the past decades, we have seen many a political fall bring about greater economic instability.

In what appears to be a political suicidal attack on the parliament, the parliamentarians are likely to be the main casualty. It can also damage the political system. The crisis is still brewing. The situation is headed for an epic confrontation, perhaps long legal battles as well. The intriguing political manoeuvring will likely continue beyond March 28. If the government survives, it will face a daunting task of controlling prices during the holy month of Ramazan, followed by the annual budget. If a vote of no confidence is carried against the prime minister, things could go from bad to worse if the president asks the PM to continue till the House can elect a new leader.

So what is the best way out? Maybe the opposition should withdraw the no confidence motion and the prime minister should call fresh elections under an interim set-up. A new PM can then take the all-important decision in November. Perhaps, that is the only way to ease the political tensions.

Another way forward is for all parties to postpone their public meetings at D-Chowk, till March 28, at least. All MNAs should be allowed to freely exercise their right to vote. Those who fall under the defection clause, can later face the initiation of the disqualification process. Their parties can also deprive them of their basic membership.

The opposition parties should have realised the consequences of a no-confidence motion. Such moves tend to expose the moral character of the MNAs. The prime minister, on the other hand, should have realised just how weak his control over the party is, and how sharp the differences within are. Instead of the opposition, he should blame himself for the kind of people he has surrounded himself with; perhaps, even question the moral standing of a government with unreliable allies.

Unfortunately, most politicians learn nothing from history.

Having talked about a monumental change – the tabdeeli – Prime Minister Imran Khan has come round to allocating the so-called development funds for legislators in a bid to save his government.

In the neighbouring India, in 1985, major political parties agreed to settle the issue of defection. Now, the Indian constitution is categorical on the subject.

In the famous Sabir Shah vs Shad Mohammad case (1995-PLD-65), the Supreme Court of Pakistan referred to it in its detailed judgment, which dismissed the appeal filed against the judgment of the Election Commission of Pakistan, dismissing the reference filed by the appellant as leader of the parliamentary party in the-then NWFP.

Aftab Sherpao had become the chief minister in 1994, after two PML-N ministers ‘defected’ and the-then CM, Sabir Shah, was ousted in a vote of no confidence.

Now legal minds in both the government and the opposition are trying to come up with their own interpretations of the Article 63(A). I am no legal expert, but there is every likelihood that we may see another legal battle over the subject of defection, in case those elected on a PTI ticket vote against the PM.

Balochistan is a classic example when it comes to surprise votes. In 2018, months before the general elections, the PML-N government was toppled and a new party, called the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), emerged. Its leader Jam Kamal became the chief minister. Last year, a revolt within the BAP resulted in the ouster of Kamal and Abdul Quddus Bizenjo replaced him.

In the Punjab, during the 1990s, Manzoor Wattoo became the chief minister in one of the biggest revolts in a ruling party i.e., the PML-N.

Sindh is not far behind. In 1992, Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah become the chief minister, despite the opposition by the PPP and the MQM. Several MPAs were alleged to have been ‘abducted’ and forced to change their loyalties.

The tug of war between Zardari House and Bani Gala today is no different. Since October 2021, several politicians acting in the name of democracy, have been working against the system. A veteran PPP leader told me on the condition of anonymity, “Regardless of who wins or loses in this race, the political class as a whole has already lost.”

For one thing, there is little logic behind the vote of no confidence move as it comes at a time when the government has lost a string of by-elections and the first phase of the local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Prices of daily commodities are rising fast and the IMF has imposed tough conditions. Our FATF status is also making things difficult. The opposition’s move, irrespective of its outcome, has actually provided the prime minister some relief.

Over the last three and half years, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has looked in complete disarray. While it is the only party today that has representation in all four provincial assemblies, there are three to four blocs in the party. Prime Minister Imran Khan is now trying to use the opposition’s move to reunite the party’s rank and file.

Even if he is voted out with help from some government allies, the opposition has given him more than one cards to play. He would have been in a much more difficult position if he had gone to polls in October 2023.

What difference will it make if Imran Khan survives the vote of no confidence? What benefit will it bring to the opposition if they vote him out? In either case, democracy will have lost as politicians as whole will be discredited for going against their zameer (conscience).

Imran Khan could have made history had he instead of pleading with his allies and trying to please the disgruntled elements in his party, called fresh elections. But he has not shown the courage even to sack the four MPAs in Sindh, who during his visit to Karachi last week to win over the MQM-Pakistan, voted for a PPP senator.

What a dilemma the three mainstream political parties in the country – the PTI, the PML-N and the PPP – face. Despite having more than two thirds of the members they are hostage to shady bargains. They have only themselves to blame for this mess.

This is politics at its worst. I have yet to come across a single politician, on either side, who has the courage to resign in protest against the unethical bargains.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO

A parliamentary market