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A bit of guesswork

July 24, 2018

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ELECTION week is here — the most controversial one ever, it is said. And that is saying something for a country which has experienced 1988 (where an IJI was conjured up in the way the GDA has been today) and 1990 (when the PPP lost one per cent of its vote share in Punjab from 1988 but saw its seats drop from 52 to 14).

But this is all ancient history. Post 2008 brought a new normal where the establishment had lost its sheen and fury. This was not to last though. Come 2018 and the gloves have come off. And the fuss being kicked up by the political parties — in the Senate, on the media and on the anarchical social media — has made the ‘string pulling’ the biggest story of the day, rightly so.

No wonder then that for most people, the coming parliament promises to be an unstable affair. Its lack of legitimacy in the face of all the rigging allegations will render it unstable. But what shape will this instability take?

There is no one answer to this as few have a crystal ball or the gift of prophecy ala Sybill Trelawney to tell the future.

To be fair, noisy parliaments are routine in Pakistan.

But among the possibilities being discussed is the PTI winning big (or big enough) to form the government. For those protesting the rigging, all tend to agree that while they are being targeted, the PTI is being helped to the crossing line.

This would mean that once parliament comes into being, the noisy protesters would be of the N variety, as they are and would have been robbed of their right to represent the people of Punjab in parliament. But alone, can they turn the country upside down? It’s hard to do so single-handedly which is where the PPP comes into play.

The noise would hit dangerous levels if the PPP too is deprived of Sindh as some people fear. However, the GDA — according to many predictions and surveys — may be causing the PPP a few sleepless nights, but it doesn’t seem to be ‘stealing’ (pun intended) Sindh away so far. And let’s be honest, the PPP will probably put up with a flawed democratic project as long as it has Sindh.

Assuming hence that PPP gets to run Sindh — for the third time running — the PML-N will be the only party done out of its fair share.

So, the next question is, how much fuss can one party kick up? Quite a bit if the 2013-2018 period is considered. The PTI didn’t really let the PML-N breathe, did it? Kick up a noise in parliament, pick a page out of Khan’s book and come up with new allegations every quarter, and threaten to hold dharnas in Islamabad. It’s all been done before and the PTI deserves no less after what they put the PML-N through.

In other words, the PML-N can make life difficult for the PTI, if the party is in the mood to be combative. Yet, what does such instability mean?

To be fair, noisy parliaments are routine in Pakistan. In the 1990s, a PPP in opposition made ‘go baba go’ famous as it made parliament an uncomfortable place for Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The slogan hasn’t been forgotten, and was oft remembered when the PPP’s and PML-N’s noisy protest in the 2002 parliament forced Musharraf to stay away.

In other words, noisy parliaments and a hyper opposition can destroy a government’s peace but it rarely leads to so unstable a government that it collapses.

A dharna (or a long march as it used to be called in the ’90s) is no different. It disrupts a city (or two) and it can temporarily stop a government from working smoothly (as the PML-N claimed happened to its big-ticket development projects and CPEC). But send a government packing it can’t, as Imran Khan learnt to his chagrin in 2014.

For a long march to be fatal, the military needs to weigh in. And this fear makes governments skittish once the hordes set off from Lahore — led by Nawaz Sharif in 2009 and by Khan in 2014. (This is also why Khan’s threat to hold a dharna in 2016 provoked the PML-N into heavy-handed tactics instead of packing their stuff as they had done in 2014.)

And in both cases, the civil-military distrust led to fears of the march toppling the government, rather than the street cred of the marchers.

Unfortunately, this is the reality we will contend with, even when the PTI is in charge. Chances are that the allegations of a rigged election or an aggressive opposition will not cause as much havoc as the PTI’s own inability to live happily ever after with some inhabitants of Pindi.

This is what the PTI’s detractors are counting on, including some in the PML-N.

The thinking is that the PTI will come into power in a hung parliament — which Khan himself has been worried about if his recent speeches are any indication. And unlike Asif Ali Zardari, who proved to be single-minded when it came to the longevity of his government, the view is that Khan is incapable of being this pragmatic. Or as cool-headed as Nawaz Sharif was during 2014.

And this will prove to be the deal breaker. But the problem with this kind of a falling out is that it hasn’t led to a government being ousted post 2008; just a prime minister or two. Will this change after July 25? If so, why?

In other words, in Pakistan it is not an aggressive opposition or an unfair election which leads to instability and a snap election. The instability is endemic, ever present and is not just a result of what happens in parliament. But the external prodding and pushing hasn’t led to a midterm election in recent times. If an aggressive opposition can single-handedly push for a snap election, this will be a new departure.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2018