ISLAMABAD: Imran Khan’s latest demand — that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi call for early elections and obtain a fresh mandate for himself — has not only baffled most political stakeholders, but has also divided opinion within his own party.
The consensus seems to be that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief was ‘shooting from the hip’ when he made this demand, since it does not make political sense for his, or any other opposition party, at this point in time.
According to PTI leaders, the move is meant to create pressure on the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
“We need a government that commands the respect of the people, not one that is finding it difficult to rule. The government has virtually collapsed; ministers are absent from their offices and the ruling party can’t even ensure quorum in the legislature,” said Naeemul Haq, Mr Khan’s long-time aide and confidant.
Describing PM Abbasi as “a lame duck”, the former PTI spokesperson maintained it was imperative for him to reaffirm his mandate by calling for fresh elections.
In the words of veteran journalist Nusrat Javeed, the PTI is on a high after its showing in the NA-120 by-poll.
“They consider their performance in a traditional PML-N stronghold quite impressive, but that outcome was made possible by the two religious parties that garnered over 14,000 votes,” he said, referring to the rise of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and Milli Muslim League, which served to divide the PML-N vote bank and bolster PTI’s showing in the all-important by-election.
Although PM Abbasi is growing on the masses, a PTI source told Dawn, his opponents think of him as ‘Sharif in an Abbasi mask’, given his propensity to reaffirm his allegiance to his predecessor in interactions with the media. “This is probably why Mr Khan is asking him to seek a fresh mandate.”
But even now, the PML-N isn’t as weak as their arch-rivals think. In fact, if the outcome of the upcoming by-election in Peshawar’s NA-4 constituency is favourable for the ruling party, Mr Javeed said, the incumbent government may use the PTI’s stratagem against them and seek snap elections in National Assembly constituencies to consolidate their position further.
Aside from the obvious constitutional hurdles — PM Abbasi can only seek the dissolution of the National Assembly under Article 58; the fate of the provincial assemblies lies in the hands of their respective chief ministers, as envisaged in Article 112 — there seems to be no tangible goalpost in the direction that Mr Khan is headed.
“Suppose that PM Abbasi did agree to the proposal, he can only seek the dissolution of the National Assembly. If Murad Ali Shah in Sindh or Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab do not agree to do the same, there is no way to force them,” said Senator Taj Haider.
The veteran lawmaker posited that if the federal legislature was dissolved, “what will happen is that elections to the 60-odd NA seats in Sindh, for example, will be held under a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government. You see the problem?”
In addition, there is the issue of the laws under which the next general elections will be held. In PTI’s own view, the current law is weak and — as was revealed before the inquiry commission on electoral rigging — contains loopholes that need to be plugged before the country can go to the polls again.
“There will be serious questions about the transparency and legitimacy of any election held in haste under existing electoral laws,” said Mudassir Rizvi of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen).
In his opinion, there was no incentive for an incumbent government to call for early elections in the absence of a wider consensus among political parties, since doing so without fielding nominations for the caretaker set-up would mean leaving this crucial matter up to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to decide, as had been the case in 2013.
After the 20th amendment, Mr Rizvi said, it had become very difficult for incumbents to call snap polls without a wider political agreement on the issue.
For him, it is imperative that parliament swiftly pass the Election Bill 2017 so that the ECP has ample time to do its homework and bring its processes in line with the new legislation.
The Senate elections are also a major milestone between now and the next election. Given their party position in the assembly, PTI stands to double their presence in the upper house since none of their senators are up for retirement this year. It is highly unlikely that the party’s decision-makers would want to squander such an opportunity.
Within the PTI itself, there isn’t a great degree of confidence that an early election would work in their favour. Insiders say that the party’s parliamentary board, which is supposed to deal with the distribution of tickets to candidates, was only formed a couple of months ago and has yet to meet.
The party has nothing to gain from early elections. Rather, if polls are held according to schedule — around August next year — PTI would be in a much better position to pick up more seats, according to those privy to the party’s internal machinations.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2017