Pakistan’s political landscape is presenting a concerning picture. What bothers people is the feeling that the country is sailing in an unknown direction
he ruling coalition and the opposition have opened up several fronts, locking their horns and adding to the political instability and uncertainty that has resulted in financial, political and social chaos in the country. What bothers people is the feeling that the country is sailing in an unknown direction. A direction, presumably, will be set after the name of the next army chief is announced. The ruling coalition expects to appoint the next army chief. The PTI is eyeing the possibility of doing so itself if elections can be called immediately.
Pakistan has been suffering on account of street protests, long marches, judicial activism and violations of the constitutions for nearly two years with no end to the strife in sight. Every day, a new chapter in the political tussle or a new financial issue opens up without showing any signs of resolving.
Pakistan’s political landscape is presenting a concerning picture. There is no genuine opposition in the National Assembly after 123 members of the PTI resigned after the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan was passed. Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has neither accepted nor forwarded their resignations. However, they are in no mood to return to the current parliament. Instead, the PTI is pressing the government for fresh elections. Imran Khan and the other PTI stalwarts are holding the ruling coalition responsible for the current financial crunch. Khan, who strongly criticised Pakistan’s top military leaders after his ouster and now calls them ‘neutrals’, is again trying to secure their support to press the government to dissolve the National Assembly and call fresh elections. The PTI firmly believes that if elections are held immediately, it will get a clear majority and form the federal government single-handedly. This will then create the opportunity for the PTI to appoint the next army chief.
Interestingly, Khan alleges that he was ousted as a result of a US-hatched conspiracy. Yet the PTI is pushing for the opportunity to form a government in the Punjab. The PTI MPAs from the Punjab did not resign and are flexing their muscles in the PA with the help of Speaker Parvez Elahi. This is seen as an indication of the PTI’s plan. It believes apparently that after forming the federal government following fresh elections, it would be in a better position to contest provincial elections, especially in the Punjab and the KP.
Now, both the PTI and the PML-N are flexing their muscles for by-elections on 20 seats of Punjab Assembly, vacant after the Election Commission, following an order by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, de-seated 20 PTI members for voting for Hamza Shahbaz. The PTI has fielded some new and some old faces. The PML-N has given its tickets to all 20 PTI dissidents. This has made its own workers and previous ticket holders unhappy. In a couple of constituencies in Lahore, former PML-N ticket-holders have not been particularly active in support the party’s new candidate. Pakistan Peoples Party, a major component of the ruling coalition in Centre and the Punjab, too, has withdrawn its candidates from all 20 constituencies and pledged its support to the PML-N.
The results of the by-election will allow the PTI and the ruling coalition measure their popularity. PTI leaders, Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, are apparently not confident of victory. They have been accusing the election commission of being partial and the government of using state machinery to rig the elections. The fact remains that the PTI won only one by-election from Daska when it had governments at the Centre and in the Punjab.
IK, who keeps calling the ruling coalition ‘traitors’ has said that he would soon call on the masses to end the ‘slavery’. However, he seems to be under some pressure and has been unable issue the call for another long march. He has adopted another strategy and directed his supporters to stage protests in their hometowns. Last week, their shows at Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were good but the traditional enthusiasm of Insafians was missing.
Interestingly, Khan alleges that he was ousted as the result of a US-hatched conspiracy yet the PTI is in government in Punjab. The PTI’s MPAs from Punjab did not resign from the Punjab Assembly and are flexing their muscles in the PA with the help of Speaker Pervaiz Elahi. This hints at the PTI’s plan – after forming the federal government in case of fresh elections, it would be in a better position to win over provinces, especially Punjab and KP.
“When our captain goes solo in decision making, the workers’ enthusiasm goes down,” says a PTI leader, seeking anonymity.
On the other hand, the ruling coalition also finds itself in hot water because of the price hike in the wake of fuel price revisions and power tariff raise. The government appears to be unable to control the situation. The deal with the IMF is in the final stages and China is about to release a soft loan of over $2 billion after which the government expects some help from the KSA, the UAE and Qatar. Even if the government succeeds in securing deals with all these countries, it will most likely be unable to extend any relief to the masses as far as petroleum prices are concerned. However, the government is trying to provide some relief in the form of cheap flour and other items at the Utility Stores, a couple of thousands of rupees in cash under Benazir Income Support Programme and free medicines at public hospitals in the Punjab. But the impact of such measures will be limited as the masses expect the government to lower the petroleum prices and power tariff which is not possible.
In such circumstances, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has said that the government is ready to take tough decisions to save the country from default. This may make the PML-N, the major political stakeholder in the Punjab, and the PPP, in Sindh, unpopular.
PML-N and PPP insiders tell TNS that fresh elections in these circumstances are out of the question. They say that the ruling coalition will first pull the country out of the financial crisis and provide some relief to the masses and only then go for elections. This indicates that the government wants to complete the National Assembly’s tenure.
The only good news so far has come from the Financial Action Task Force that has decided to start the process of removing Pakistan from its grey list after physical inspections on site. An FATF delegation will visit Pakistan to for the inspection. The PTI has claimed credit for the FATF’s decision. The ruling coalition too claims credit for its efforts. Interestingly, the ISPR DG too has issued a statement about military leaders’ efforts to bring Pakistan out of the grey list. This also hints at the possibility that the current government might want to stay and take credit for the FATF’s final decision after which Pakistan may enjoy a flow of foreign investments.
A key decision in the near future remains the appointment of the army chief. The ISPR chief has said several times that Army Chief Gen Bajwa does not want another extension in his tenure. The government, of course, will have to appoint a new army chief. Since all political parties believe that the army is the powerhouse of Pakistan and no government can survive without its support, the ruling coalition wants to appoint the new chief.
Khan’s perception is apparently different. Despite the fact that the ISPR director general has stated on several occasions that the army has nothing to do with politics, IK thinks that the military leaders played a role in his ouster. Now that he has tried everything – from long march to petitions and from petitions to protests - and failed to move the things according to his wishes, he, through his speeches and statements, is trying to woo the military leaders to intervene and press the government for early elections. He sees refuge in military support for the future. A factor in his favour is that a majority of ex-servicemen support him and are lobbying for him in powerful quarters. There is credible information from the power corridors that the announcement about the new army chief will likely be made by the current government by the end of July (next month).
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of