New Crisis – Najam Sethi

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The gallery is sorely disappointed. Shouts of “Noora Kushti”, “Topi Drama”, and many foul expletives deleted that leave nothing to the imagination rend the air. The people are variously cynical or outraged.

But Imran Khan, for one, has tweeted his delight that the opposition’s hopes of a clash of institutions have been dashed. After the short order, the two most incompetent spokespersons of the PTI government, Firdaus Awan and Farogh Nasim, were veritably sweating with relief.

Is the crisis over? Have the judges resolved the crisis? Will everything be hunky dory now?

No, on all counts. A new political crisis has just begun. Consider.

The short order sets out to clarify some murky areas that have historically bedeviled civil-military relations and tilted the balance in the Miltablishment’s favour. After the fallout, the legal and constitutional ambiguities in favour of the Miltablishment will inevitably be ironed out in favour of civil society. The fact that the judges have only given a sitting army chief a reprieve of six months and put the selected government on notice to sort out the matter in the highest civilian forum of the country, parliament, is sufficient proof of this mood. That is the good part.

The case exposes the PTI government to be unprecedentedly incompetent and dangerously stupid. It is bound to trigger some serious rethink in the Miltablishment about the quality, reliability and sustainability of such a sole political partner for the breadth of socio-economic transformation it has in mind. By dragging the army chief into the dock, yoking him with a six-month extension and compelling the brass to go back to the drawing board and war game the near political future, it has opened the floodgates of nasty debates and speculation about his person no less than his institution. The “same page” narrators must be seething with rage at the exposure of their hollow claims. This is also all for the good.

If truth be told, the judges could not, realistically speaking, have sent an army chief packing. Nor could they have ignored the blatant errors of omission and commission by the PTI government. They have done the next best thing: kept the ball in flight and kicked it in the direction of parliament where it belongs.

Two broad conflicts will open shortly. The first is legal. Does the order envisage a constitutional amendment or will a simple act of parliament suffice to resolve the matter? The debate will rage far and wide. The first requires a 2/3 majority in parliament which cannot be obtained without the support of the opposition. There’s no way the opposition can concede it without a big quid pro quo, as much from the PTI as from the Miltablishment, unless it is ready to commit political hara kiri exactly when it can smell its enemy’s blood. The other option will be challenged in parliament and in the courts again, making it a long drawn out and noisy affair that will keep everyone guessing while destabilizing economy and society.

The second is political. Resolving the matter in six months without the opposition’s agreement is going to be a tall order. If, as is likely, Imran Khan persists with his victimization campaign, the opposition will see the political wisdom of not succumbing to any Miltablishment pressure. This may provoke the Miltablishment to lose patience with Imran Khan and fall back on Plan B. If Nawaz Sharif’s recent “relief” case is an indication of the suspicions aroused in the PM’s camp, which led to tensions with the judges and Miltablishment, we can imagine a worse scenario in the near future.

While new confrontational fronts are going to open, we can be sure that existing ones will be accentuated as a perception grows that the PTI’s expiry date is nearing with the Miltablishment’s Khan romance on the wane. The foreign funding case is “open and shut”, and if the current Chief Justice of Pakistan doesn’t deliver justice, the next one is going to be under greater pressure to assert his honour. Similarly, the judges may drag their feet on the Musharraf case but the verdict cannot be sidestepped much longer. If the Miltablishment’s back is going to be scratched in one case, a balance is likely to be struck by spiking Imran Khan in the other.

Whichever way one looks at it, it will require a Herculean effort of stupidity by the combined opposition to fritter away the best opportunity to come their way in a long time to drive an irrevocable wedge between the PTI and Miltablishment. Either the Miltablishment can continue on a path with the PTI that has brought anguish and discredit to it or it can ditch it, making new allies and cutting its losses. Certainly, the current junta has lost face in the eyes of the people.

If Pakistan’s power-stakeholders are not to confirm the country’s “banana republic” status in a moment of national crisis, they should help restore law and democratic order under a competent consensus government.