RED ZONE FILES: Early elections?

Published September 2, 2021
A file photo of Prime Minister Imran Khan. — Dawn/File
A file photo of Prime Minister Imran Khan. — Dawn/File

There’s talk of them. Hushed tones. Soft whispers. Conspiratorial gossip. Some logic is peddled, some rationale is crafted, and some advantage drawn up. The Islamabad air is pregnant with possibility.

And yet, possible is not probable. At least not yet. Time is of the essence, and leveraging it is key. Political planners inside the Red Zone are salivating at the prospects of pulling the rug under the opposition’s feet. When it comes to it. If it comes to it.

“Kaptaan is keeping his cards close to his chest,” says one of his ministers when probed about the chances of snap elections at some point. But people read cards even when they are looking at them from the outside. There may not be any substantive evidence that Prime Minister Imran Khan is seriously thinking of opting for early elections, but the murmurs reverberating ever so gently inside power circles in the capital suggest that the topic is under discussion, if not under active consideration.

But why?

Here’s where the plot begins to not just thicken, but widen too. There is a sense — even muted apprehension — inside the opposition camp that a surprise election may be exactly what they do not need. Yes, not the PML-N, and not the PPP. Put simply, they are not ready. And neither are the circumstances they wish for. The PM senses his rivals’ vulnerability. He smells their fear. His aides whisper that he does not say so in so many words, but in cabinet meetings he is increasingly focused on getting projects done. He is pushing and pushing for more and more, faster and faster. They try to read his mind through his words, they try to decipher his thoughts through his actions, and some believe that he is waiting, wanting, willing to catch his opponents at their weakest — and then strike.

Weak they are. The PML-N is locked into its own seemingly never-ending struggle in which one arm is grappling with the other to slam its body down. This disconnect between the so-called ‘hardliners’ and ‘pragmatists’ is becoming unresolvable with each passing day. “The party has never been more confused,” admits a senior leader who was one of the key ministers in the Nawaz Sharif cabinet. He argues, with a tinge of sullenness, that the duality plaguing the party is taking a heavy toll on motivation, clarity and performance. “We are letting the government off the hook and giving them a clear field,” he says. Will early elections suit the government more than the PML-N? “Yes,” he says without hesitation.

He has reason to admit so. PTI is on a high after suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for a good part of three years. Pulverised by the scarcity of experience, pummeled by the harshness of reality, and pounded by the blows of its own hubris, PTI limped its way into 2021. But gradually it has risen like a phoenix and is preparing, it claims, to soar. It is enjoying a “moment” in which everything is going its way. The PM recognises the value of this moment. And as moments go, he knows, this may not stay around for too long. Timing therefore is everything.

Look at the timing of Shaukat Tarin’s budget. “This is an election budget,” says a PPP leader. Having played a long innings in politics, and served in high offices, he argues that such budgets are aimed at buying the next elections. One year of throwing money at every problem can get you an electoral solution, he insists, but if the money is thrown too soon to collect political dividends — especially when you really can’t afford to throw that money — then there could be serious financial trouble. The economy takes a hit. The voter takes a hit. The government takes a hit.

Timing is everything.

Two years is a long time in Pakistani politics. The PML-N was at its strongest just before the Panama leaks issue slammed into it in 2016. Even today many senior PML-N leaders — when they are in a reminiscent mood — say then prime minister Nawaz Sharif should have called snap elections and cashed in on his perceptional value before the system began to close in on him. It would have caught all his rivals off guard, and pre-empted many planned, and some unplanned, manoeuvres against his government. But at that critical point, he vacillated. He misread the situation. He missed the moment.

Many in the PTI ranks want to learn from these mistakes. They want to read the situation accurately. They do not want to miss the moment. A fresh mandate could pre-empt many foreseen, and some unforeseen challenges, that are bound to crop up within the next year or so. According to Red Zone insiders, the following could expedite the departure of the “moment” that the PTI is enjoying: (1) The Afghanistan situation could worsen, leading to violence spilling into Pakistan, and the TTP/IS launching a wave of terrorism; (2) Diplomatic problems could mount if the US and its allies scapegoat Pakistan for the disaster in Afghanistan, leading to severe economic problems, including those from IMF, World Bank and FATF; (3) Inflation, already out of control, could spiral upwards and create havoc for PTI’s political standing; (4) The key command appointments that the PM has to make in the second half of next year could produce unpredictable dynamics and upend all PTI calculations, and; (5) PML-N could get its act together, with Nawaz Sharif returning to serve time in jail and galvanising his support base.

These and many more factors — including the anti-incumbency one — could haunt PTI’s re-election chances. So when it takes stock of the “moment” now, it sees many more agreeable factors: (1) It remains on the same page with the establishment — so far; (2) It has the economy on the upswing and the opposition on the ropes; (3) The optics of governance are much better than they have been since the last three years; (4) Afghanistan is still early in its change and may not slip back into violence so swiftly; (5) It can throw money without having to worry about the next budget — till the next budget, and; (6) The IMF programme will be back on track shortly.

The government is fast-tracking the electoral reforms bill and aggressively pushing for the Electronic Voting Machines. Official estimates say about 500,000 EVMs will be needed for the elections approximately. In one recent cabinet meeting, according to a Red Zone insider, the PM asked how much time would be needed to manufacture this number of EVMs. He ordered there should be no delays. The opposition has rejected the machines but so far the government appears adamant on utilising them.

So if the PM were to consider early elections, what could be the possible timeframe? “Probably July or August 2022,” predicts one insider. He says this would be the most opportune time as it would be right after the budget, and before the time of key command appointments that the PM has to make.

But then again, who knows what the PM is thinking. He is keeping his cards close to his chest.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2021

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