by: Najam Sethi
The Opposition has now demonstrated an absolute majority of over 172 MNA votes to clinch a successful vote of no confidence against Imran Khan’s PTI government. It has done so by allowing the independent media to freely quiz over a dozen PTI MNAs holed out in Sindh House Islamabad to determine their motives. An equal number of PTI MNAs are still in hiding from the Intelligence Bureau and Islamabad Police and are expected to show up on D-Day to stick the knife in. Meanwhile, the PTI’s erstwhile allies led by the PMLQ and MQM are visibly stitching up last-minute details before formally joining the swelling ranks against Imran Khan.
Thus, in the next few days, the Opposition should be able to field at least 200 votes, leaving the PTI gasping with less than 140. There may be some horse-trading but the central fact is that widespread popular alienation from Imran Khan’s policies has made it impossible for them to win an election on a PTI ticket. So they are scrambling to get a berth on a winning platform.
Under the circumstances, the constitutional thing to do is for Imran Khan to step aside with dignity and allow a new government that enjoys a clear majority to rule in Islamabad.
But Mr Khan’s reaction has been terribly negative. He is abusing his ex-allies and vowing to “fix” them through the offices of NAB, FIA and assorted government agencies. He is aiming to stop PTI rebels from voting and, failing that, through the office of Speaker Asad Qaisar, to disqualify them and reject their votes. He is discussing unconstitutional proposals with his hangers-on – like Governor’s Rule in Sindh, Presidential Proclamation of an Emergency, etc. — to block the no-confidence process and drag it into the courts through April and May. And, more ominously, he is preparing to besiege Parliament and browbeat parliamentarians on voting day by gathering hostile crowds in D-Chowk.
This last act of unconstitutional resistance has provoked the Opposition to call for a bigger and equally aggressive demonstration in the same area to counter his machinations. This is a recipe for clashes and violence.
Imran Khan is also threatening to reveal an Ace of Spades on D-Day to foil the Opposition. Since no threat or blackmail is likely to deter or undermine the Opposition at such a late stage, one may presume he means to divide and pressure the Miltablishment to abandon its “neutrality” and take his side. How he intends to do this is not clear, nor can one be sure that, when this card is played, it will succeed in its objective.
PTI whisperers say Imran may target and even sack General Qamar Javed Bajwa and appoint a senior non-controversial general to take his side and bail him out. This is a very risky proposition. In 1972, Z A Bhutto sacked the army and air force chiefs and got away with it only because he did it in a cloak and dagger manner when both forces were reeling in the aftermath of the Bangladesh crisis and war. But the Empire hit back in 1977 when his hand-picked army chief, General Zia ul Haq, sent him packing and later hanged him. Nawaz Sharif sacked General Jehangir Karamat for a minor slip up but General Pervez Musharraf repaid the institutional compliment in 1999 and made Mr Sharif suffer for a decade. This time around, if such a situation were to arise, there is no knowing how General Bajwa and his corps commanders will react.
But one thing is certain: the decision to become “neutral” in today’s charged political environment is an institutional Miltablishment decision and not a personal one. There are powerful reasons for this stance. The Establishment has realized that its hybrid experiment led by Bonsai Khan has come a cropper, in the bargain discrediting the institution hugely. Now when the public mood is rabidly anti-PTI, as every survey of public opinion shows, it simply can’t afford to be seen to embrace Khan. For him to take such a big risk without guarantees of Miltablishment “non-neutrality” – which is currently not available — would be a blunder.
There is also some speculation that he means to provoke chaos and violence in D-Chowk on D-Day. Since this is bound to drag the Miltablishment into the fray, it would amount to a philosophy of “If I am going down, I will drag the Opposition with me and burn the house down”. Of course, both the Opposition and Government will lose out but Imran and the PTI will be the biggest losers whereas the Opposition will give safe passage to the Miltablishment and get back into the saddle before long.
A significant number of PTI MNAs are not the only ones bolting to the Opposition’s stables. The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, who is reputed to be responsible for some bad advice and decisions, has hurriedly made plans to escape to safer pastures. A number of special assistants, advisers and ministers are readying to flee. Others have suddenly become tight-lipped and invisible.
The fact that it is downhill all the way now for Imran Khan, whatever his illegal and unconstitutional delaying tactics in Islamabad, is underlined by a serious developing threat in Punjab. The Opposition is ready with the required signatures to launch a vote of no-confidence against Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. This move is as good as done because the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, and his cohorts have already switched loyalties. Unlike Speaker Asad Qaisar in the NA, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi is part of the proposed solution rather than being the problem.
Those who think that the Opposition will start in-fighting and fall apart sooner than later are wrong. The personal hatred of Imran Khan and the political threat of PTI revival is so real that they are willy-nilly committed to making solid compromises for power-sharing in a so-called “National Government” minus One. Indeed, such power-sharing is likely in Islamabad and all four provinces until the general elections are held, when each group will go its own way or adjust seats with one another to obtain maximum advantage for all sides against the PTI.
For so many voters, Imran Khan promised so much and delivered so little. But tragically, he is a deeply flawed person. The worry is that his personal failings may lead to democracy’s failure in Pakistan all over again.