A storm in a teacup? – Nasim Zehra

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Yet again, questions are raised of an early election and of the PTI’s uncertain future. While Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to face issues within the many groupings within the PTI, the latest one having surfaced in the Balochistan Assembly, there are two specific developments which have triggered the talk about this government’s survival.

One, the changing PMLN-establishment relations. Discussions with PML-N leaders point to a softening of the party leadership’s position regarding this issue. Several leaders have even subtly alluded to a rapprochement. Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has in his wry style said there is and never was any conflict, even though he has not gone easy on what he claims is unfair accountability by the government including long spells of imprisonments for PML-N leaders. Mohammad Zubair, who is also Maryam Nawaz’s spokesperson, has clearly stated that relations have improved. Other PML-N leaders acknowledge that in matters of bail etc they see neutrality. Since Shahbaz Sharif’s bail and the question of his departure to London, this impression has gained currency.

PML-N leaders have also conveyed to assembly members that the party’s past approach of not engaging in parliamentary business is likely to change soon. This ceasefire may thus be seen in some circles as a harbinger of likely political change on the national scene.

Perhaps the more critical development though is the JKT issue. With almost 30 members from the national and provincial assemblies having rallied around the PTI benefactor and leader, and also Imran Khan’s close ally and confidante, the PTI did suffer some shock initially. Nevertheless, past claims and counterclaims, the basics of the situation became evident – that JKT was not going to leave Imran Khan or the PTI; and that he was positioning to essentially draw Imran Khan’s attention to his complaint against the prime ministers’ key aides including the principal secretary and the accountability czar.

It appears that after appointing Ali Zafar as the neutral investigator to determine the veracity of JKT’s complaints, the matter has been somewhat settled. The announcement of JKT’s supporters to form their own group in the Punjab Assembly and the National Assembly did create a storm in a teacup. The question was: would the government now last if 6-7 of its members from the National Assembly pulled away support? The very next morning JKT clarified that this grouping had no political implications, and that like always he stood behind his leader Imran Khan. It seems JKT’s matter with Imran Khan, in the FIA files and in the courts, is likely to settle down soon.

Beyond the current political situation, three facts about Pakistan’s current power context are very clear. One, none of the political parties wants to see the end of Imran Khan’s government at this point. None of the political parties wants elections before at least 2022. The PPP was never keen for early elections and had piloted and partnered the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) only to strengthen its own hand in negotiations with the country’s powerful powerbrokers. This was the PPP’s co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari’s clearly known position, irrespective of Bilawal’s words in PDM campaigns. Meanwhile, the PML-N leadership which had promised the PTI’s early departure, resignation calls from all assemblies and boycott of elections, has reversed all its strongly held public positions. Its leaders now also repeatedly talk about a level playing field in the next elections. PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah recently said in a television show that his party is not working for a revolution, but simply for fair elections.

Two, the opposition parties’ engagement, especially of the PML-N and the PPP, with the country’s institutional stakeholders has to do with the parties’ concerns with their NAB cases, the accountability process and the promise of a level playing field during the next elections. None of these current engagements is centered around the removal of the current government. Three, despite all the information that flows from sections of all the stakeholders and power players regarding the current government’s weaknesses, disagreements over matters like the Punjab chief minister and perhaps the prime minister’s own staff, some corruption issues linked to the prime minister’s close party members, the question of moves by unelected elements to remove the current government does not arise at all.

Several of the PTI allies who have been the reason for the survival of the ruling party are seen as being majorly influenced by those very unelected non-political elements. From a pure real-politic perspective, no powerbroker at the moment would not like to see the end of a government midway – opening up the country to the unknown, chaotic and ‘uncontrollable’.

Hence, whatever differences that may exist between institutional stakeholders and the government, and whatever power quotient has been wielded historically over the political class, the current power equation works in favour of Imran Khan. The reason is simple: a cautious and complex stakeholder engaged in Pakistan’s complex political maze would never take an extreme step against one it had vehemently supported. Also, it is clear that any removal through pro-establishment parties, all currently the government’s allies, would evoke a reaction far more harsh and aggressive than Nawaz Sharif’s 1993 palace intrigues’ speech before he was forced to resign. Clearly, for any midway change in Pakistan’s current political setup it is Imran Khan, and none other, who can push the change button.

This, however, does not mean that Imran Khan’s governance troubles and reform initiatives, linked to his political troubles, are in any way reduced. There is reason to believe that in the coming weeks and months the opposition including the PML-N may opt for a working relationship with the government in parliament. All eyes are now on the next elections and hence a change of tack, from the aggressive and antagonistic to the relatively more cooperative and constructive, by the opposition may be likely. Meanwhile, the government continues to face mega issues of governance like the Rawalpindi Ring Road scandal, the absence of police reforms, the inability of the Punjab government to even remove garbage from the streets of Lahore, inability to control inflation etc.

In an interesting turn, it seems the previously laid-down plans for Pakistan’s major opposition parties, the PPP and PML-N, may now be revised and reset. If in the 2018 elections there was an effort to cut to size the two parties, especially the PML-N, then in the next elections it may already have been realized that a level playing field is critical.

Equally important is the constitutional positioning regarding political matters, which essentially means institutional neutrality where it comes to political parties and national elections. This may take a long time, yet the process of neutrality must begin. The tricky issue remains that the one-sided accountability process did have institutional blessings and there may be an attempt to somehow withdraw – and yet the prime minister remains determined that no NROs will be given. This construct of accountability which involves the courts, the law, the prosecution, the business community, the political players – the entire edifice of politics, power play and the country’s economy – requires an overall review and reform. If JKT’s matters were reviewed and reconciled, will other politicians be granted the same treatment?

Imran Khan will complete his term by tweaking sharp political edges within the PTI, but critical nagging questions must be addressed justly and according to law.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: nasimzehra@gmail.com