Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan may have taken the most dangerous plunge of his political life on Monday when his party announced that it would quit the assemblies except that of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Only a day earlier, he had given a call for civil disobedience, urging the people to stop paying taxes and utility bills to the 15-month-old Nawaz Sharif government he seeks to unseat and force a re-election under a revamped election commission and a neutral set-up.
“At best Imran’s resignation decision will divide the PTI and at worst it will end the democratic set-up in the country for a long time to come,” argues a political science professor who refused to give his name.
“Imran has taken a big chance. It may result in a split within the party even if a few of its legislators refuse to hand in their resignations,” he says.
He believes the PTI leader was under immense pressure to give something to his growingly tired supporters who are gathered in Islamabad.
“First he announced a civil disobedience movement and now resignations. Both steps will have serious consequences for his party as well as the democratic set-up in the country,” he concludes.
Some say resignations alone will not make any impact. “Unless Imran steps up his anti-government street protest, the PTI resignations will only damage his own party at the end of the day,” argues Ahmed Bilal Mahboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
Imran has since announced leading PTI marchers into Islamabad’s high-security red zone on Tuesday.
Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Tahirul Qadri also plans to extend his party’s protests to the rest of the country after the expiry of his deadline to the Nawaz government.
The PTI, according to some media reports, had discussed the issue of resigning from the assemblies in its meeting on Sunday before its leader gave the call for civil disobedience. The decision was deferred when some of its leaders led by Pervez Khattak, Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, opposed the proposal. However, PTI vice chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi denies any rift in the party over resignations.
“Pervez Khattak was very much part of the party meeting where the decision was taken. If we have to step up protests to achieve our objective, it will be after the party decides to do so,” he tells Dawn on Monday. “The decision to resign from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly will be made after consultations with our coalition partners.”
The Jamaat-i-Islami, the junior partner of the PTI in the north-western province, has already distanced itself from the PTI protest and its decision to quit the assemblies to pave the way for their premature dissolution.
“We will not become part of any move that might result in the dissolution of the assemblies; indeed, we will protect the assemblies,” JI chief Sirajul Haq told TV channels.
The PTI has 34 seats in the national assembly, 30 in Punjab and four in Sindh. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa it is the largest party with 55 seats in the house of 124. The government and the Election Commission of Pakistan say by-polls will be held on the seats to be vacated by the PTI.
Mahboob says the holding of by-elections shouldn’t be a problem. “People have a tendency to participate in the elections for solution to their problems. Even the pro-independence forces fighting in [India-held] Kashmir have been unable to keep people away from the polling stations.”
A former ECP secretary, Kunwar Dilshad, disagrees with him, however. “By-elections on a massive scale will not be possible when the protesters are still on the streets. The resignations will deepen the political crisis,” he told a TV channel.
PPP senator Raza Rabbani also feels it could be difficult for the ECP to hold elections on seats vacated by the PTI.
“The PTI can create law and order conditions in the constituencies it had won in 2013. It will not be easy — or comfortable — for the government to hold polls in these [PTI] constituencies.”
He blames the government’s sluggish response to Imran’s demand for a probe into vote rigging allegations. “The PTI decision to resign from the assemblies is unfortunate because it will hit the very base of democratic institutions. Imran will be wiser if he rethinks this decision because PTI resignations will not result in the ouster of the government alone. It will lead to the abrogation of the Constitution unless both Nawaz and Imran agree to move away from their positions and sit across the table and reach a political solution to the crisis. I don’t foresee mid-term elections if the government goes.”
Rabbani’s worst fear is about the federation. “Irreparable cracks will appear in the federation if a caretaker government or a military regime — centralist by nature — replace the democratic set-up in the country. I see the geography of this country changing if such a thing happens because it will strengthen anti-federation forces in the provinces.”
Many share Rabbani’s concerns. “Whatever is going on in Islamabad is not happening in a vacuum; it is being done according to a pre-planned script. The PTI resignations should not surprise us. Some forces have been creating conditions for this precise moment for months. Resignations are being handed in to give legitimacy to their [PTI] cause,” concludes a political economist who also requested anonymity.
Hina Jilani, a prominent human rights defender and lawyer, doesn’t agree to Imran’s call for civil disobedience. “There’s nothing wrong with the concept of civil disobedience. It is neither unconstitutional nor unknown to human rights struggles the world over. People have used the tool of civil disobedience in their struggles against colonial and repressive rulers and foreign occupations. But its use for the marginalisation of democracy isn’t acceptable.”
The subcontinent isn’t unfamiliar with the use of civil disobedience — defined by political scientists as refusal by a large group of people to obey particular laws or pay taxes as a form of peaceful political protest — by politicians like Mahatma Gandhi and Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman as a means of struggle for the rights of their people.
Jilani says Imran has no right to give the call for civil disobedience. “He is part of parliament. He should have discussed with other political parties and debated it there. I’d understand if all parties decided to give the call for civil disobedience, but one person or his followers don’t have a right to make this kind of decision.”
She says everyone wants change. “People have been struggling for change for the past 60-70 years, but nobody has ever called for such an extreme step, not even during the democratic struggle against the most repressive military regimes,” she recalls.
“There is only instance I can recall when the combined opposition decided to give the call for a pen-down strike against the Ayub regime. Yet it was not executed. Now he [Imran] is arbitrarily giving the call for civil disobedience and threatening to disconnect electricity [from Tarbela] to Punjab. What does he want? Who is he to demand something that will affect the entire nation of 180 million people?” she questions.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2014