PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s wish to remodel the Senate election process has clearly hit a raw nerve with the opposition parties. Mr Khan, whose party currently doesn’t have a majority in parliament, has proposed that the tradition of secret ballot should end and that the upcoming Senate polls scheduled for March 2021 should, instead, be held a month earlier in February. The government’s legal advisers are now mulling over how to turn this desire into reality, with the option of putting the question to the Supreme Court or bringing an amendment through an ordinance that can bypass parliament — both moves that could further jeopardise the parliamentary system in this country.

As this happens, all eyes are on the opposition parties that have reacted strongly to this development. Unfortunately, this very response has exposed the chaos within the ranks of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. The PPP has opposed any change to the secret balloting, whereas the PML-N has criticised the possibility of early elections altogether. Some opposition party members have scoffed at the idea of by-polls, whereas the PPP is eager to have them.

In the last few weeks, the PDM’s three major parties have offered several scenarios as the potential ‘next move’ of their protest. Their two key options are mass resignations and a long march to pressure the incumbent government to resign and call for fresh elections. If this is indeed their strategy, their response to the government’s Senate election plan dilutes it. Why are they even engaging in a debate about a show of hands, by-polls and election schedules if they are going to resign? Clearly, the PDM’s initial hope that mass resignations on their part would somehow throw a spanner in the works of the Senate polls has been dashed. It is now desperately hoping that something somehow works in their favour — a remote possibility given how confident the PTI is about the Senate polls, after which it will have no hurdles passing legislation.

This moment is a reminder for the opposition that confrontational politics can only take them so far. No doubt, their call to the public has successfully brought thousands out to protest against the current set-up. But our country’s history shows that rarely do such gatherings bring down governments. In the PTI’s case, despite the numerous economic and administrative challenges the government is facing, it is not likely to be dislodged. For this reason, both sides should consider dialogue to end the political deadlock. Taking extreme positions is politically damaging and is not in the interest of those who voted. The PTI should acknowledge the role of the opposition, and engage with them without hostility. The PDM, too, should seriously consider talks with the government in order to negotiate a way out of the crisis. After the Senate polls, it might be too late.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2020

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