Less than a week after opposition parties submitted a no-confidence resolution to overthrow Prime Minister Imran Khan, the odds seem to be stacking against him, and fast. With his allies and dissident PTI lawmakers demanding their ‘pound of flesh’ in exchange for support against the opposition’s combined might, Mr Khan embarked on a veritable tour of Pakistan in a bid to stir up the passions of his supporters – before a vote in the National Assembly seals the fate of his government.
The government, and indeed Prime Minister Khan himself, is clearly banking on its allies to help them pass the no-confidence trial, and none have been more in the spotlight than the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.
The Q League, as it’s also known, has a reputation for being a party ‘for all seasons’. Having split from the Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif following the ousting of his government in 1999, the party has enjoyed its time in the sun.
Even though Shehbaz Sharif is commonly associated with the “underpass” of the capital of Punjab, it should be kept in mind that the Chaudhrys are the architects of Lahore 2.0, i.e. the elaborate road networks, Rescue 1122 and the food street in Gawalmandi, among other things, were all introduced when Parvez Elahi was the provincial chief executive during the reign of General Musharraf.
Veteran journalist and political commentator Sohail Warraich argues that even though it only has a handful of seats in the National Assembly, the PML-Q can still make itself relevant “if it sides with the opposition “. According to him, the party still has cards to play in terms of the politics of Punjab, which dominates the legislature by its size.
But there are those who think that PML-Q may have overstated its part by demanding the top post in Punjab from both the PTI and the combined opposition.
While the opposition camp has already refused their request, its leaders are still hoping against hope that they will succeed in forcing the hand of the politically embattled prime minister.
This is despite Sheikh Rashid’s declaration in Quetta that his Kaptaan would not be blackmailed by a party with only five seats in the assembly. Rashid, you may recall, was once very close to the Shujaat-Elahi fold and knows the Chaudhrys “inside-out”, so to speak.
But judging by the statements of the PML-Q leaders, they will decide which side to weigh in on in a day or two, or when the much-talked-about “establishment” finally decides to end its neutrality; it doesn’t matter which comes first.
PM in crisis management mode
Since opposition parties revealed their intention to overthrow him with a vote of no confidence, Imran Khan has consistently pledged to push back against the move, warning his opponents of “disastrous consequences” if the motion fails.
He also announced a four-month electricity and fuel price freeze until June to win over voters he may have to turn to for re-election, if the no-confidence vote passes. This package has already got the government into hot waters with the International Monetary Fund.
But developments in recent days show that the PTI is ready to do anything and everything – from shows of force by its workers to the misinterpretation of the level crossing law – to defeat the opposition motion. . For example, the planned PTI rally outside parliament on the eve of the no-confidence vote has raised fears that the ruling party intends to “forcefully” prevent dissident PTI lawmakers, and even MPs from opposition, to enter the assembly to vote.
Then ministers like Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned that PTI supporters could “surround the houses” of lawmakers suspected of voting with the opposition. If a Treasury member manages to enter the house, the PTI insists they will be disqualified by the president on the spot and barred from voting.
Notwithstanding the fact that this is not possible – constitutional scholars agree that the president’s powers only come into effect if a legislator has voted against the party whip in a vote of no confidence or a finance bill – the threat is enough to give some members reluctance.
Play political poker
For their part, the opposition parties – which currently hold 162 seats but need 172 votes in the 342-member lower house to impeach the prime minister – say they have won the support of around 190 lawmakers, including dissenting MPs. of the PTI.
Support from any of the PTI allies – PML-Q, MQM-P and BAP, who have a total of 17 votes between them – would be a major boon to the opposition. One thing is sure; the ruling party will be in trouble, even if an ally leaves its camp.
But the opposition keeps its cards close to its chest; only the top leaders of PML-N, PPP and JUI-F are supposed to have full knowledge of their exact strategy for election day, when they promise to surprise the ruling party.
Many political observers believe the reason for the reluctance of government allies to commit support to either side is the “neutral” stance the country’s powerful military establishment has reportedly taken in this crisis.
“I think they are all waiting for Pindi’s call, which may not come. In such a scenario, the allies will have to make their own decisions based on their ability to blackmail one or the other. camp,” a political science expert, who wishes not to be named, told Dawn.
Opposition leaders have also repeatedly said the establishment is neutral this time around, unlike a few months ago when the PTI and Imran Khan were thought to have the full backing of the military.
“The confidence shown by the opposition parties shows that the ruling PTI has lost the support of the establishment. This does not bode well for Imran Khan, who faces opponents much more adept than him when it comes to political dealings,” the political expert said.
According to him, it is “the support of the army which helped him to survive the challenges launched by his adversaries in the past; but not more. He seems to be alone to face the current challenge of his reign.
Imran Khan’s outburst at the recent public rally in Dir, where he said, “Humans are on the side of good or evil; only the animals remain neutral” also indicates that he has lost the support of the military leadership.
“I cannot say whether the opposition is being helped by the establishment in its campaign to overthrow the PTI government, but I am certain that the Prime Minister no longer enjoys the support he had from the army since before the 2018 elections,” he added.
But what prompted this change? Political analysts believe tensions between Imran Khan and the army chief over the appointment of a new spy chief last year have driven a wedge between the two.
It is also widely believed that the prime minister has refused to grant the army chief another extension when he retires in November.
For its part, the military has made it clear many times now that it does not interfere in politics and should not be dragged into such matters.
A problem like Buzdar
The no-confidence decision is not the prime minister’s only headache. Much of the PTI in Punjab, led by his old friends Jehangir Khan Tareen and Aleem Khan – who financed the party’s election campaign in 2018 and were instrumental in stealing PML-N and PPP ‘electables’ – have openly declared the request to replace Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, saying he has not responded.
According to a certain Mr. Warraich, the mass mobilization campaign undertaken by the Prime Minister in recent weeks betrays his desperation. “I think the mass contact he has engaged in…shows that he is campaigning for his party’s re-election as leader of the opposition. He is known to be a fighter since his cricket days and is not going to give up easily. But if he falls, he plans to portray himself as a political martyr; as if all the crooked politicians had ganged up on him because he was trying to recover from them the billions plundered from the country.
“Even if the opposition succeeds in overthrowing him, Mr. Khan will not leave any time soon,” concluded Mr. Warraich.
Posted in Dawn, March 13, 2022