EXTENSION done. What’s the lay of the land? Here goes:
1- The empire/umpire always strikes back. The temporary hitch in the system has been corrected and all political engines are now working fine. The establishment has been the centre of gravity of our system for many decades and the wheels have always churned accordingly. The last few years witnessed a half-hearted attempt by the PML-N to shift this centre of gravity but the efforts did not work out as planned. Today, the system is back to the status quo in which all know their place. At least there are no surprises now that we are all back inside of our habitual comfort zones.
2- All political stakeholders are now clear (once again): the road to Islamabad lies through Rawalpindi. The opposition has digested the fact that it cannot fight its way back into power; it has to negotiate its way back into power. That’s been the formula all these years and that is the formula that holds true today. If anyone had any delusions of grandeur, they have been put to rest. Playtime over kids, back to the dormitories now…
3- The government has gained political muscle with the extension saga. The bruised and battered PTI limped through December and dragged itself into 2020. Lacerated by its own incompetence and shocking lack of focus, it had spun an existential crisis around itself. Today, however, it has recovered some of its lost footing because the opposition lost its balance. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s existential worries seem to have faded — for now at least. No one is talking about a minus-one formula.
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4- In popular perception, both the PML-N and PPP have taken a hit in the extension episode. By supporting the bill that legalised the extension of the current army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and having laid out a procedure for future extensions and re-appointments of the chiefs of the army, air force and navy as well as the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, the opposition is seen to have traded its ‘defiance’ for acquiescence. This may accrue them some hidden rewards, and may pay dividends in their long journey back to power (see point 2 above) but in the court of public opinion the PML-N and PPP will bleed political capital for some time.
This may accrue them some hidden rewards, but in the court of public opinion the PML-N and PPP will bleed political capital for some time.
5- If the opposition, and especially the PML-N, do not lurch back into fight mode under pressure, a new trek back to the summit will begin by taking small steps. These steps will reflect in an amended narrative that will aim to explain and justify the change of strategy. Finding traction for this new narrative may not be easy and that is one of the early challenges that the party will face once it recovers from the initial shocks of public flogging. We may see and hear signs of this new narrative in the coming days. The nascent narrative may find some help from related developments.
6- One such development will be the tabling of the NAB Ordinance in parliament shortly. Despite the opposition’s criticism of the ordinance, it agrees in principle that the NAB law should be amended. The opposition will now get an opportunity to make amendments in the ordinance and there is a likelihood that the bill will pass with overwhelming support if not outright consensus. This will lead to relief for many people, mostly from the opposition, who are facing NAB inquiries and detentions. Opposition leaders would then be in a position to spin this as a success of their new strategy and narrative.
7- For the short to medium term, the PML-N will aim to do the following: (a) get relief for its leadership from legal troubles, (b) repair the damage done to its relationship with the establishment, (c) reorient its rank and file to the new strategy, (d) launch attacks on the ‘selected’ but not on the ‘selector’, (e) war-game new possibilities including the one that sees the PTI government completing its term. A key event that will determine where the PML-N now stands will be the local body elections in Punjab. The party would aim to ensure it gets a level playing field, which may be another dividend of the new strategy.
8- Parliament will get back into focus and there will be a modicum of a working relationship between the government and the opposition. The PTI will behave. That’s the new trend that is emerging. We will hear less of the ‘container’ talk, relatively speaking, and perhaps a bit more talk about actual work. The PTI knows it is still in the danger zone and it will need to show something for its 17 months in office other than empty claims and random projects that do not add up to a big plan.
9- External issues will begin to dominate priorities. The FATF decision is due next month and will have huge consequences whichever way it goes. The Iran situation remains unstable and may demand constant attention from Pakistan. Afghanistan should be moving towards a deal on American withdrawal and whatever happens after that will clearly have a direct bearing on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the eastern border is red hot and Modi’s India continues to pose a clear and present danger to Pakistan. The next six months will require some unity of thought and action between the government and opposition if any of these external fronts opens up.
10- Post-extension, the lay of the land has the potential to throw up some stability in the system. This stability could be disturbed by: (a) governance so bad and so chaotic that matters of the state get worrisome, (b) some big external shock, (c) major reprioritisation of the establishment. In the absence of any such big disturbance, we may see managed chaos become a routine affair inside the established arena under certain rules of the game.
No one will miss the year 2019 and its multiple failings that kept the political pot boiling. About time we found some silver lining, even in the unlikeliest of places.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2020