There are no options, said the PTI official. There are always options. When there are none, they are found; and when they are not found, they are created. In recent days Islamabad has been burning up with the ‘options’ fever as the unnerved government coughs up political blood. In every gathering, at every meeting and in every private dinner there is one talk, and one talk alone: what are the options?
Dawn has delved deep into the Red Zone, spoken to people from across the political spectrum, and probed shadowy figures to find out the list of all possible options. Well, based on all these conversations, here they are.
OPTION 1: PTI government completes its five-year term. This option is premised on the status quo maintaining itself in terms of the current parliamentary arrangement as well as the absence of any major internal or external jolts. In other words, this option assumes PTI has tided over the controversy around the appointment of the ISI director general by asserting the constitutional powers enjoyed by the PM. However, the situation is not as sanitised as many in the party would like to assume.
In the present scenario, Option 1 would amount to the following: (a) Prime Minister Imran Khan will proceed to notify the new ISI DG and the deadlock over the appointment will come to an end; (b) But the rupture between PTI and the establishment is not likely to heal; (c) the new ISI DG will take charge under the overhang of this tension and will not be expected to go the ‘extra mile’ for the PTI government; (d) this ‘slight stepping back’ will translate into problems for the government whose solutions were usually ‘outsourced’, including basic political management of members as well as legislation matters, and even sometimes ensuring quorum; (f) the establishment — chastened by the controversy — will review its priorities before the next general elections and if this means preference for providing a level playing field — relatively speaking, of course — PTI will be at a net disadvantage; (e) at best, PTI will limp its way to the general elections and will be a weakened version of the party that was, till earlier this month, bragging about another five-year mandate.
OPTION 2: An in-house change with PTI remaining in government. This option is premised on a decision that the status quo cannot sustain itself. It also acknowledges that ‘less is more’ in the sense that the minimum number of cards in the deck should be shuffled to attain the desired outcome. This would translate into intensive behind-the-scenes influence-peddling — akin to the kind that took place prior to the 2018 elections — in order to degrade Treasury numbers to a manageable figure. It would also entail delicate engagement with the opposition benches in order to stitch together an understanding that would enable them to cooperate. The opposition will obviously ask: “What is in it for us?” The answer will need to be clear and categorical. Once done, the following may happen:
(a) The opposition files a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister under Article 95 of the Constitution. Article 95 (4) says: “If the resolution… is passed by a majority of the total membership of the National Assembly, the Prime Minister shall cease to hold office.” (b) The house will need to elect a new leader and someone from the ruling PTI will be nominated by the party. (c) As per prior arrangement, he or she will be elected because those from the ruling coalition, and from the party, who had voted against the PM would now vote in favour of the new candidate. (d) The PTI will continue to lead the coalition but with a new PM. (e) This can only happen with the understanding and cooperation of the opposition. (f) General elections will take place on time in 2023.
OPTION 3: An in-house change with PTI pushed into the opposition. This option is an advanced version of Option 2 and will come into play if there is some resistance from the PTI on that option. Exercising this option would mean, like the previous option, weaning away coalition partners and desired number of party members and clubbing them into a new coalition. This option would also require an advanced level of negotiations aimed at deciding the new leader of the house from among the present opposition as well as guarantees for the conduct of the general elections. Option 3 is a time-consuming option because it has multiple moving parts that have to fit together in order to move smoothly like a well-oiled wheel. Once the required preparation and homework is done, Option 3 may unfold like this:
a) A new majority coalition is stitched together which entails some switching of coalition partners and disgruntled PTI members; (b) PML-N may not join the coalition as a partner in government but votes in its favour for the vote of confidence; (c) the new coalition could possibly gravitate around PPP as the largest party, along with smaller coalition members as well as breakaway factions from the PTI; (d) elections take place on time in 2023.
OPTION 4: PM calls early elections. Sensing the creeping possibility of Options 1, 2 and 3, the PM decides to exercise his own option of dissolving the National Assembly and opting for early elections. The PM knows that this may not be the best time to get a fresh mandate given the troubles facing the electorate. Planning Minister Asad Umar has said on record inflation will not ease till at least the middle of the next year. The PM would also know that choosing this option at this time would mean that his hand has been forced. However, he may calculate that given the other options, this may be the least bad one. However, here are some possible by-products of this option: (a) PTI will face a hostile electorate because of harsh economic conditions and skyrocketing inflation; (b) PTI may also face desertions in the ranks with electables sniffing the wind; (c) the stepping back of the establishment will empower its opponents and deprive PTI of some of the oxygen it inhaled with deep breaths in the 2018 elections.
OPTION 5: Is not an option for now.
In the game of hard power, perception has already started to shape reality in strange and mercurial ways. Inside the Red Zone, the official smirk, yes that’s gone; and the swagger, yep that too. The PTI party faithfuls, imbued with the passion of their original ideals, remain as innocently hopeful as they were in 2013. But the jaded and weather-beaten politicos among the government ranks — those that have experienced the slings and arrows of this city’s ruthless power games — they know there is a sudden chill in the air, and this cannot be good. The sagging of those shoulders and the grimness of that expression, these are all telling a story they have heard so often. Things change. But not that much.
So options? There are always options.
Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2021