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Two PAs’ dissolution and after?

The kerfuffle regarding the dissolution of the Punjab Assembly has finally been laid to rest after Chief Minister (CM) Pervaiz Elahi moved a summary to the effect to Punjab Governor Balighur Rehman on January 12, 2023. Since the Governor refused to be part of the dissolution and did not sign the summary, the Assembly stood automatically dissolved after 48 hours. Next in line is the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly, expected today, January 17, 2023, if CM Mahmood Khan is to be believed. Similar to Punjab, the KP Governor Ghulam Ali has refused to put his name to the dissolution.

If both provincial Assemblies (and therefore governments) have been ‘sacrificed’ by the Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf (PTI), it has to be seen as the fallback tactic after the resort to street power failed to nudge the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) federal government to accept the PTI’s persistent demand for early general elections. As things stand, however, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led PDM government shows no signs of caving in to the pressure built up thereby by the PTI. It follows therefore that two provincial elections are now on the cards, a process mandated for completion within 90 days. During this period, caretaker CMs and cabinets will be installed. In Punjab, the process of selection of a caretaker CM has already kicked off, with the favoured names of each side doing the rounds in the media. The process of selection of a caretaker CM involves putting forward the names of two possible candidates by either side. If parliamentary and constitutional norms are upheld, the outgoing CM and the Leader of the Opposition are supposed to meet to agree on a consensus candidate, but given the state of political polarisation and confrontation between the two sides, this is unlikely to yield the desired result. The next step in case of no agreement is to send the two names of each side to a parliamentary committee, but for the same reason as above, this too is unlikely to yield anything positive. The greater likelihood therefore is the resort to the last option, i.e. sending the names to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and letting it decide the caretaker incumbent.

The current political saga shows no signs of resting there. PTI and its ‘valuable’ ally Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q, or at least the Pervaiz Elahi faction) have decided to pay Prime Minister (PM) Shehbaz Sharif in the same coin by asking him soon to get a vote of confidence from the National Assembly (NA). This PTI move has found encouragement in the distance that has opened up between a reunited Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the federal government of which it is a part over the just completed local bodies (LBs) elections in Sindh. The ECP having rejected the MQM-P’s objections over the delimitation of constituencies in Sindh, particularly in its political base Karachi and Hyderabad, the boycott by the MQM-P of the LBs polls produced a pale shadow of past such exercises, particularly reflected in a low voter turnout, lacklustre proceedings, largely peaceful but punctuated by a few instances of violence between political rivals. However, despite its threats of quitting the PDM coalition government in the Centre if the LBs polls went ahead despite its objections, pragmatic political wisdom seems to have persuaded the MQM-P not to forego its toehold in the corridors of power in Islamabad.

This development may go against the PTI-PML-Q combine’s move to ask PM Shehbaz Sharif to obtain a vote of confidence from the NA. If its numbers are indeed intact, the PMD government should theoretically sail through any such ‘test’. PTI is also floating balloons about the ‘split’ in the PML-N between the home and ‘London’ groups of the party. There may be aspirations and ambitions at work within the ranks of the PML-N’s leadership, particularly in the next generation, but given the family culture of the Sharifs, a ‘split’ is a tall ask. Nawaz Sharif remains the undisputed leader and the frequent calls from his party to return and lead the upcoming election challenges is an indication not only of this fact, but the perception within the PML-N that only Nawaz Sharif can effectively combat the Imran Khan political juggernaut. Maryam Nawaz may have to fill her father’s considerable shoes unless and until Nawaz Sharif gets relief in the cases against him, particularly the Al-Azizia case in which he has been sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The PML-N hopes for a similar outcome in this case as the Avenfield Apartments reference in which Maryam Nawaz has been given a clean chit. Uncomfortable as it is, the political fortunes of the PML-N may well rest on the attitude of the judiciary.

In the meantime, Nawaz Sharif has assumed command from London and tasked senior party leaders with framing a comprehensive chargesheet against Imran Khan, his establishment facilitators (General Bajwa and two ex-spy chiefs), and the judiciary (a former Chief Justice of Pakistan). The PML-N’s ‘vote ko izzat do’ (respect the vote) narrative is to be recrafted to match and defeat Imran Khan’s bluster against ‘foreign masters’ and the establishment. So far, despite their best efforts, the PML-N has not seen the fruits of its Toshakhana and audio leaks efforts against Imran Khan (some observers would argue because the latter enjoys a sympathetic tilt from the judiciary). Clearly, the PML-N has been pushed onto the backfoot after its removal from power of Imran Khan through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022. Two political disasters therefore can be pointed to in the last four years. First, General Bajwa’s ‘love affair’ with Imran Khan, which turned sour in the third year of his incumbency and arguably authored the current political and economic crisis confronting the country; second, the haste by the PML-N to unseat Imran Khan, despite the reported view of Nawaz Sharif that it would be more politically prudent to leave him in power, let him continue to fall flat on his face, thereby weakening him and paving the way for the PML-N and its PDM allies to romp home in the general elections this year. The haste was fuelled by Asif Zardari’s advice and the ambition of Shehbaz Sharif to enjoy the premiership being handed to him on a platter in the absence of Nawaz Sharif. Even the no-confidence movers and shakers seemed to have no clue what a quagmire they were landing themselves in. Apart from a floundering economy, they confronted a PTI that was still firmly embedded in support of Imran Khan, some sympathy that usually accrues in our political culture for perceived or actual victims of the shenanigans of the establishment, and despite the failure of street power as a tactic, the PTI’s superior political messaging.

Populist politics the world over, and certainly in Pakistan’s case, usually sports a narrative free of adherence to the facts (or even logic). The fact that it finds resonance amongst the public is a reflection of the degrading in recent years of the political understanding by the masses, more concerned about their lives and livelihood problems and therefore easily swayed emotionally. Objective thought is conspicuous by its absence, as is largely a progressive agenda. Both voids must be filled if Pakistan, and indeed the world, is not to hurtle to the edge of the precipice.

Rashed Rahman, "Two PAs’ dissolution and after?," Business recorder. 2023-01-17.
Keywords: Political science , Political change , Political leadership , Democratic movement , Shahbaz Sharif , Zardari , Punjab Assembly , National Assembly , PTI , PMLQ

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