Noisy politics

April 29, 2018


AND we’re off to the races. Big, controversial budget done; another disqualification and maybe a few more to come; possibly a jail sentence soon to be delivered; but it’s pretty much a clear run from here.

Election season is nearly upon us.

But first the noise from this week. From the way they howled and hollered, you’d think the opposition was desperate to get its hand on the budget. To come up with a plan, to put the country back on track. To MAKE PAKISTAN GREAT AGAIN.

Of course, it’s nothing of the sort.

Whoever’s in charge post-September will have an unpleasant, unenviable task: trying to protect growth while slowing the national haemorrhaging of dollars and putting the brakes on a fiscal deficit zooming along.

Or to put it in layman’s terms, whoever takes over after the election will be handed a bag of poo.

But the opposition knows what it’s doing. It wasn’t trying in vain to protect its chance to chart a better economic course after the election; it was doing its best to make the budget controversial — and blunt the edge the N-League has sought in the election.

If only the politicians did that one small, little thing, the courts would leave everyone alone and peace and fairies would break out.

There’s no way in hell any party is ever going to give up the opportunity to distribute freebies — or limit the pain — ahead of an election. And certainly not if you’re a beleaguered party struggling to hold on in an electoral environment that looks favourable, but a political, systemic environment that is not.

So that’s all it was — the usual suspects fighting over the usual non-solutions to some very epic problems. If there was any doubt, it was dispelled immediately after: the protagonists inside the chamber merrily posing for a group photo ahead of the dissolution of parliament.

And the judges. Oh, the judges.

A clever bit of theatre wrapped in a tale of high morality. If only — if only! — the politicians would settle their problems among themselves and not drag the courts into everything. If only the politicians did that one small, little thing, the courts would leave everyone alone and peace and fairies would break out.

Khawaja Asif’s disqualification has no systemic implications. While lawyers will do what lawyers do and argue distinctions between what’s come before and what’s been done to Asif, his disqualification has only seemingly confirmed the emerging rule: have an iqama, failed to disclose something trivial, belong to the PML-N — out you go. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Soon it’ll be uncooperative and unreasonable types from other parties.

But here’s a fanciful, fantastical thought: what if the lecture to politicians had been turned into introspection within? Yes, the Supreme Court is authoritative and a high court obliged to follow its judgements. But since we’re already so deep into the realm of legal puritanism, an opportunity beckoned.

The disqualification test laid out by the Supreme Court is new — and manifestly controversial. Why not flesh out that controversy in legal language and present an opportunity to the Supreme Court to re-clarify?

Nothing was going to change at this stage — whoever won, the other was guaranteed to appeal to the Supreme Court. It is there that Khawaja Asif’s fate will ultimately be decided.

Instead, we were only reminded that the courts are helpless in the face of politicians never learning and never sorting out their issues. Bye-bye, Khawaja Asif and the others who will follow.

It will be one helluva election.

So about that. A full term now seems certain, taking the caretaker government through June and July, with the election at the end of July, assuming the ECP uses the full complement of days available to it before holding an election.

The campaign proper is usually short and intense, squeezed into the last six weeks before the election and the real intensity showing after candidates are finalised some three weeks before polling.

This year, it’ll be tighter still: the month of fasting followed by Eid likely means a mad dash for votes immediately after, sometime in the second half of June. Peak summer, too, affecting campaigns and the N-League’s prospects if load-shedding returns with a vengeance.

It will be a silly, chaotic season. Elections always are, but this one especially so for reasons obvious. So to get a jump on the silliness in this week of noise, an early, blind prediction.

If a relatively unmolested process and open vote, the N-League will again be the largest party, though probably short of a majority. Fence-sitting and hedging for post-election scenarios will mean a significant rabble of independents. PTI and PPP to finish with fairly similar numbers, though an increase on their 2013 showing.

At that point, it could get more interesting — if that’s possible. A solid N-League electoral showing will boost Nawaz personally, but consecutive governments virtually in the grasp of the N-League would create an incentive to reduce his disruptive influence on the party.

Party versus man — the final chapter could be the most riveting yet.

But if the process is significantly manipulated and the PML-N is cracked open, the PTI will rise to the largest party, though also short of a majority. PML-N will be reduced to current PTI-type numbers; the PPP will hold steady. And a clutch of independents will be courted by all.

The Sanjrani model worked in the Senate, but it would be a coalition from hell in government. So perhaps PTI leading a coalition including everyone else in parliament, minus the PML-N and with outside support from PPP.

Now, isn’t this silliness better than pondering budget woes and disqualification criteria?

It’s off to the races.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2018