Upsets always have backstories. Yousuf Raza Gilani’s ‘surprise’ vanquishing of PTI’s finance minister Hafeez Shaikh in the Senate election on the Islamabad seat on Wednesday is no exception. Here are some ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown knowns’:
The divide between elected and non-elected people in the PTI was deeper than imagined. There was genuine grievance in the rank and file about the importance that Prime Minister Imran Khan was giving to unelected advisers. The backlash was one reason why key advisers like Babar Awan, Barrister Shehzad Akbar and a few other hopefuls were not given senate tickets. Hafeez Shaikh, as per party insiders, was not a popular candidate.
Many PTI and coalition MNAs had been feeling neglected for a long time. This neglect was manifesting itself in the following: (a) Their basic constituency work was suffering because they had no one to turn to get things done; (2) Key cabinet ministers were difficult to access and the non-elected ones could not relate well to the compulsions of constituency politics; (3) After the departure of Jahangir Tareen, there was no one single person who could ‘manage’ them, throw his weight around even in provincial governments to get stuff done for these MNAs and generally act as a bridge between them and the Prime Minister’s Office; (4) The prime minister hardly ever came to the parliament to spend time with the MNAs, listen to their grievances and facilitate them; (5) As a result of all these factors, many were primed to express their frustration through their vote.
In the last two days when the prime minister spent dedicated time in the parliament meeting his MNAs, a new narrative was subtly pushed by the government onto their own rank and file. Sources confide that some senior PTI people dropped broad hints to the MNAs that if they did not ‘behave’, the leader always had the option of packing off the assembly and calling fresh elections. Some MNAs did not take this well.
PTI leadership had been struggling with its political management for a while now and there were red lights flashing inside the party. In the early days, the party leadership had ‘outsourced’ much of this political management to powerful quarters. Left to its own, PTI could not have saved Senate chairman Sadiq Sanjrani from the vote of no confidence. This time, too, there was a general sense of relief in the party ranks that Hafeez Shaikh’s election would also be managed accordingly — more so because the treasury benches had the required numbers. But some things did not pan out.
Treasury benches sources now admit this time there was a subtle change. They say the enthusiasm witnessed during the Sanjrani episode was visibly diluted in the Hafeez Shaikh election. Such enthusiasm is gauged by the number and frequency of phone calls, contacts and pressure to vote, or not vote, a certain way. However, in this election there was a gentle distancing that was felt by the ruling party. Perhaps the opposition also felt it, prompting Yousuf Raza Gilani to utter his famous words about powerful quarters being neutral.
PDM played its cards well and outmanoeuvred PTI in the art of deal-making. PTI’s weak political management at the national level, including with allies (that once used to be the responsibility of Jahangir Tareen) allowed PDM space to generate a dialogue with parties, factions and groups in order to successfully engage in political barter. PTI was so busy trashing Gilani, allegedly recording and releasing videos, struggling to cope with the Daska disaster and fuming at the Election Commission that it neglected the deal-making happening in plain sight. When you’re talking all the time, you don’t have much time to listen.
With Gilani now the official candidate for chairman of the Senate, as announced by chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Wednesday night, PDM now has a real shot at gaining the office and turning the tables on PTI and its allies. The final numbers in the Senate will be locked shortly, and the difference between the two sides is a few seats more than expected. “If we lose the chairman’s election too,” says a member of the treasury benches, “one-page equation will be seen to be in trouble.” The elections of the chairman and deputy chairman are scheduled for March 12.
PTI will now need a new finance minister, unless it can find a solution to the problem of an unelected adviser not being allowed to chair the important Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) and the National Finance Commission (NFC). Hafeez Shaikh still has till June as per the ordinance that allowed him to become a minister. This means that technically he can still present the budget and do other important ministerial work, but what after that? This is a huge setback for the government as it grapples with the challenges of the IMF programme, energy issues as well as a post-Covid revival of the economy in the next two years before the scheduled general elections. The two names mentioned in whispers for the post of finance minister — if Shaikh is put to pasture — are Asad Umar and Hammad Azhar. Changing the finance minister at this critical juncture would be very challenging for the government.
Senior PDM sources now believe they have a shot at bringing a vote of no confidence against the prime minister in the National Assembly. PTI has already announced that the prime minister will himself get a vote of confidence. However, PDM sources acknowledge their prospects for success will depend on what happens in the chairman’s election. If they win the election, they believe they will have the perceptional winds in their sails which may embolden them for this move. If they lose the election, then they believe it might be an uphill task to garner the numbers. “We will focus on this after March 12,” said a parliamentarian. However, the government may pre-empt this by getting the vote of confidence before the chairman senate election.
By focusing so much on one election, and by hyping it up to such an extent, PTI allowed itself to play on the PDM pitch. The art of the deal suits the PDM more than the PTI. Whatever deals were done — financial or otherwise — worked up the numbers to defeat Hafeez Shaikh.
PTI has never been good at introspection. Now might be a good time to change that.
Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2021