RED ZONE FILES: The five-front conflict

Published December 2, 2021
A view of Parliament. — AFP/File
A view of Parliament. — AFP/File

The winter brawl is heating up. As temperatures drop in Islamabad with the onset of December, the political thermometer is registering multiple spikes across the scale. The fate of the country’s stability — or the lack of it, more specifically — can be measured accordingly on at least five fronts that are witnessing active and latent conflicts.

  1. PTI vs ECP: This ongoing battle is heating up yet again with the PTI government insisting that the election commission ensure use of electronic voting machines in the upcoming by-elections and general elections. The Punjab government has also jumped into the fight by rolling in a few random punches and saying ECP must utilise EVMs in the local government elections due in the province in the next few months. The ECP, however, has said repeatedly it cannot rush into the implementation of the EVM law because of various practical limitations. The government threat of withholding funding to the ECP if it doesn’t introduce EVMs in the elections has taken this conflict to another level. Red Zone insiders believe the ECP does not plan to budge from its position that it will not introduce EVMs till it is satisfied that the proper testing of the machines has been done to its satisfaction and the infrastructure required for the massive exercise is in place. The relationship between the PTI government and the ECP is now entering a precarious stage and various constitutional entanglements could crop up in the coming days. Expect stability to be in short supply.

  2. PTI vs PDM: December will determine the scale and fate of this looming battle as the opposition alliance prepares to make key decisions about its rallies, street protests and a possible long march on Islamabad. However, so far the PTI government retains an upper hand in this conflict because of the tepid show of public defiance by the PDM. Its talk has been louder than its actions and its indecision suggests a lack of clarity about its future course of action. The absence of PPP from PDM has weakened the alliance despite claims to the contrary. According to opposition sources, another factor weakening the PDM is the lukewarm support from a large segment of the PML-N leadership. The pragmatists within the party are uncomfortable with the aggressive anti-establishment stance of the PDM leaders and would rather find a way to unseat the PTI government by means that do not target the establishment in an all-out attack. The indecision therefore appears to impair the alliance for now and further erodes the prospects of the opposition presenting itself as a viable alternative to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

  3. PTI vs Establishment: Things remain unsettled between Islamabad and Rawalpindi despite a narrative being pushed that all is well. The nature of the tension however has mutated over the last few weeks in a subtle manner. What appeared to be ‘hot’ tension has now transformed into a cold one. This coldness, according to Red Zone insiders, is more a form of detachment, even aloofness, than a real confrontation at this stage. But the cordiality, cooperation and active support at all levels has tapered off. Both sides are eyeing each other warily. This will begin to reflect in the political dynamics of December if the PDM ratchets up its tempo. Many in the PTI leadership are making concerted efforts to somehow heal the wound and take the relationship back to where it was prior to the spat. An insider who had a meeting with one of the most powerful people in the PTI government recently confided that the top hierarchy of the ruling party was fully engaged in messaging to the other side that it meant no ill-intent. For now, however, this front remains an active one, even though in a quiet way.

  4. PML-N vs Establishment: Over the last few weeks the PML-N has tried to build a perception that its conflict with the establishment is quietening down. It hasn’t really succeeded in doing so. The fault lines are too deep, and the internal conflict within the party ensures that the healing process remains ineffective. In the immediate aftermath of the spat between the PM and the establishment, PML-N had made the right kind of noises to soften the ground for its engagement with the establishment. However recent events, including the release of audio leaks, have to some extent scuttled these initiatives. The war of words may have been muffled to an extent, but not the war of intent. The pragmatists within the party, including a large number of electables, believe they are losing an opportunity to get back into the game because of the failure of party leadership to adapt to the changed scenario. Time is running out. The conflict remains an active one.

  5. PML-N vs PPP: In this week’s Peshawar jalsa, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari fired off a salvo at the PML-N too without actually naming names. In the Lahore by-election due by the end of this week, PML-N and PPP have taken each other head-on. The video of votes being bought have escalated the verbal duel to another level. At the heart of this conflagration is the deep mistrust that continues to plague the relationship between the leadership of the two parties despite the optical bonhomie during the early halcyon days of the PDM. The PPP insiders say they want to leverage the space that has opened up after the PTI-establishment spat and have been urging the PML-N to play smart politics. Some people who keep close tabs on the establishment have also confirmed that the PPP’s image has improved in recent times. This has further aggravated its relationship with the PML-N hardliners who now suspect that the PPP wants to cut a deal and get its pound of electoral flesh at the expense of the PML-N. December will witness another round of tension between the two parties in the wake of the Lahore by-election and PDM moves. This front too remains active and inflammable.

With multiple battles under way for the spoils of victory, the final outcome of the larger war remains more uncertain than ever.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2021

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