Game On Hai! By Najam Sethi


On the eve of the Senate elections next month, Imran Khan has reminded the PPP and PMLN of their pledge in the Charter of Democracy many years ago to support open and transparent electoral practices. He wants an end to secret voting in the Senate elections. In riposte, the PPP’s ex-Senate chairman, Raza Rabbani, has reminded him of his refusal to support an earlier resolution of the Senate as a Whole in 2016 wherein reform of electoral practices was proposed. Indeed, when the PMLN demanded that the Senate Chairman’s election in 2018 be through open ballot, there were no buyers and the Establishment’s man, Sadiq Sanjrani, romped home with ballots to spare, despite the fact that the PPP and PMLN commanded a respectable majority between themselves. Much the same thing happened in 2019 when he survived a vote of no-confidence moved by 2/3 majority which evaporated on voting day!

Imran Khan has also advised the opposition parties to support open balloting in their own interest “because the government has more power, influence and money” to buy votes. To drive home his point, he has formally announced “development funds” of PKR 500m to each PTI parliamentarian to ensure that they don’t stray. His worry originates from the buying and selling of PTI MPAs in the KPK assembly for the Senate elections in 2018, twenty of whom were subsequently sacked from the party, only for many to be reinstated later with full honours! Curiously, incriminating videoevidence of those PTI MPAs has surfaced just when the issue is hanging fire both in the Supreme Court and in the public’s imagination, reminding us of other incriminating videos that mysteriously popped up to sway a judge and a NAB chairman to do the bidding of the “selectors” and “selected”.

Imran Khan’s slip is showing. He tried to move a constitutional amendment in Parliament to achieve his goal but was blocked in the Senate. He then applied to the Supreme Court for a favourable ruling without such a constitutional amendment. When the judges began asking embarrassing questions, he quickly promulgated a Presidential Ordinance to forestall any mishap. What’s the fuss about?

Since being selected for office in 2018, the PTI government has been frustrated in the PPP-PMLN dominated Senate from passing party-political legislation to consolidate power and wipe out all resistance. Now an opportunity has arisen for the PTI to become the biggest party in the Senate and, with the support of smaller parties, be in position to railroad laws and constitutional amendments. But, by the same token, the opposition parties are determined to block this path. Indeed, the Senate has become a pivotal battleground for them. In the event that the PDM’s option of overthrowing the PTI government via a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly is adopted, its success in the Senate elections will empower it with greater leverage and authority to woo disgruntled PTI MNAs. Equally, if the PDM carries out its threat to resign from the National Assembly, it wants to make sure that a full-throated opposition in the Senate can still foil the PTI’s legislative agenda in the depleted National Assembly.

In the meanwhile, the action has moved to the Supreme Court. In one case, the judges are seized with determining the constitutional validity of open balloting in the Senate. In another, the judges are trying to stop the PTI from dishing out tens of billions of rupees to its parliamentarians in a bid to retain their loyalties on the eve of the Senate elections. But the PTI government is in deep trouble for other reasons too.

The Supreme Court has finally ordered all provincial governments and the Election Commission of Pakistan to hold local bodies elections this year. Should these elections be fairly and freely held, the opposition parties will sweep them in all provinces because of public rage against the PTI’s abysmal performance so far. A strong popular base at the local level will also give greater muscle to the PDM to launch and sustain agitation against the PTI governments in the provinces and in Islamabad as well as canvass support in a new round of general elections. Without the bribe of billions in “development funds”, the likelihood of PTI candidates and “hopefuls” switching loyalties in such a situation is very high.

In the midst of all this desperate sound and fury from all corners comes a pious statement from the DGISPR saying that the Military is neutral and apolitical and shouldn’t be dragged into politics. What, sputters Maulana Fazal ur Rahman, citing chapter and verse of history and current affairs to give it the lie. Not to be left behind, Nawaz Sharif continues to lambast the “selectors” and “selected” in the same breath for the country’s ills. The fact that the public perceives a rise in the corruption and fall in the democracy index during this Military-PTI rule can only be a source of great discomfort to the ISPR.

Some pundits are inclined to believe that this statement is not so much aimed at the PDM as it is at the PTI. Is the Miltablishment washing its hands of Imran Khan? Probably not as yet. But there is, at the very least, increasing disquiet within the Miltablishment at the failure of this Imran Khan-led “hybrid” system that has flopped and discredited the “selectors”. Further turmoil and instability, including loss of support in the superior courts, could spell doom for it by compelling the “selectors” to opt out.

Under the circumstances, far from looking weak and disorganized and confused, the PDM is gearing up to bowl on a wicket that is fast crumbling. Its strategy of fighting tooth and nail in the Senate elections is giving Imran Khan, the selected prime minister, and Sheikh Rashid, the perennial Pindi punter, sleepless nights. The former is telling the PDM to accept open voting in the Senate while the latter is advising against resignations from the National Assembly. The irony is lost on both of what might happen in the event that the PDM chooses to ignore the former and abide by the latter! Game on hai!