PAKISTAN’S POLITICAL CHESSBOARD

Published December 12, 2021
Composite illustration by Syed Asif Ali
Composite illustration by Syed Asif Ali

There’s a political traffic jam on Islamabad’s D-Chowk and no one knows when or how it will clear. Will the PTI ride out the storm of public resentment over rising inflation and governance drift? Can the opposition get its act together to capitalise on the situation? And what is the establishment thinking? Eos takes a deep dive into the working and calculations of the main players involved…

Islamabad is enveloped in a thick political smog and visibility does not stretch beyond a few weeks. The events of recent months have altered many calculations — best laid plans too — and triggered dynamics that may chart a new course till the next general elections.

The dilemma of key political stakeholders is a classic one: The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government is flailing due to governance issues and its inability to get a handle on the situation. It is also twitching nervously and constantly looking over its shoulder since its spat with the establishment over the appointment of the new DG ISI. Its fate — at least in the short term — is less in its own hands and more in the hands of its opponents, who are trying to occupy the space opened up between Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

The opposition was metaphorically shut out of the system till a few months ago, but now smells an opportunity. The smell remains faint however, and the options vague. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) alliance’s sound and light show is just that. For now. The reason: there is total lack of clarity about the post-PTI options if an in-house change were to take place.

The establishment remains quiet, but there is a disquiet in this quietness. The PTI government’s handling of the DG ISI issue has led to a coldness with the establishment. But in the absence of any viable options that do not upset the system’s equilibrium, there is nothing much that can happen. For now.

The political pathways are clogged, and there is a political traffic jam on D-Chowk. All the players are honking, hollering and gesticulating, but no one is in a position to reverse and break the logjam.

So what exactly is going on in the federal capital? And is there a whiff of change in the air? To find an answer, one will need to undertake a deep dive into the working and thinking of the main players involved in this game of thrones.

THE PTI GOVERNMENT

It is in a spot of trouble, as understatements go. The precarious state of the economy, and the debilitating inflation is pulverising the government like Mike Tyson’s punches. Some in the government have even stopped putting up a brave face. They get a reality check every week when they go to their constituencies.

While the scheduled elections are not due till the end of 2023, PTI ticket holders are beginning to realise there is no guarantee that the situation will ease up any time soon, even if the government survives the coming months.

A file photo shows Prime Minister Imran Khan signing budgetary proposals for FY22 during a June 2021 cabinet meeting
A file photo shows Prime Minister Imran Khan signing budgetary proposals for FY22 during a June 2021 cabinet meeting

Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen may hold out assurances that few are prepared to believe, but the deadly combination of growing deficits, increasing inflation, weakening rupee and the rigours of the IMF programme are creating a perfect storm of disillusionment, dismay and anger that can fuel the opposition’s campaign to oust the government.

There are other issues too. The PTI government has struggled with governance from its first day in office but never in the last three years did it face the possibly existential threat that it faces today.

As long as the ruling party and the establishment remained locked in a bear hug, there was little concern about the PDM’s feeble attempts to bring the house down. This political matrimony allowed the PTI to stumble from one crisis to another, without ever having to worry about its thin parliamentary numbers, or the loyalty of its coalition partners, or even the pulls and pushes of foreign policy and inter-state relations.

Every time the PTI leadership tripped or slipped — which was fairly often — the establishment caught it before it hit the ground. It was a relationship that was loving, supportive, appreciative — and, as it now turns out, fairly temporary.

Two key determinants of this relationship are now increasing in relevance: first, the growing alarm over

the economic situation and concerns about the PTI’s ability to manage the ship through these stormy waters; and second, the changing nature of the relationship between the PTI leadership and the establishment’s high command. Both these factors will be tested in the coming weeks.

The opposition was metaphorically shut out of the system till a few months ago, but now smells an opportunity. The smell remains faint however, and the options vague. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) alliance’s sound and light show is just that. For now. The reason: there is total lack of clarity about the post-PTI options if an in-house change were to take place. The establishment remains quiet, but there is a disquiet in this quietness.

While the economic data is presenting a dismal picture, it is by no means the sole reason for the unease within powerful quarters about how the PTI is running the affairs of the state. Repeated changes of key personnel within the finance ministry — ministers, advisers and secretaries — is seen as a sign of volatility within the decision-making apparatus. The fifth secretary finance in three years was changed earlier in the month for reasons that remain shrouded in silence.

However, there has also been talk of some very obvious wrong decisions being taken in terms of treasury bills that led to the government buying at a much higher rate than it could have, had the decision been taken a day earlier. Were this a one-off thing it could have been attributed to a misjudgement. But what is on display is a trend that shows repeated instances of mis-coordination, miscommunication and mismanagement within the finance ministry.

There is also talk of similar problems between the finance ministry and the State Bank of Pakistan. Fresh questions are therefore being raised about the overall strategy to get the economy back on the rails. The chest-thumping and fist-pumping over the ‘growth budget’ from the summer now appears to be less a lesson in forecasting confidence and more a lesson in irony coming to bite you where it hurts the most.

A September 2021 photo shows Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaking at an All Parties Conference, before the PPP eventually parted ways with the PDM | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
A September 2021 photo shows Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaking at an All Parties Conference, before the PPP eventually parted ways with the PDM | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Hurt is also raining on the once-close relationship between the principals of PTI and the establishment. Hard information is always in short supply when it comes to such matters, but the nature of the capital city is such that whispers often convey the larger sense of the issue, if not its specific details. The sense now is of a trust deficit that is not being bridged despite some deliberate and conscious attempts by government emissaries.

The coming year may see the relationship tested even further. Prime Minister Imran Khan will need to appoint the new army chief in November. It is a decision that previous prime ministers have cherished and mourned at the same time. Nearly a year before the decision is due, the pulls and pushes of its dynamics are creating ripples in the political pond and feeding into the various scenarios that may play themselves out in the coming weeks.

For now, however, the PTI government finds itself in an unenviable position of having to brace for the impact of its choices in the last few months. If the opposition can somehow create a situation where it can go for the numbers game, and if the establishment stays aloof from these efforts — a big ‘if’ no doubt — then the best that the government can do is to hug its members tight, and its allies tighter, to prevent them from sniffing the wind and making choices to the detriment of the party that thought it could do no wrong.

THE PML-N

The complexities of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) internal wrangling have never had higher stakes. What was once described as a benign difference of approach towards the establishment has now cemented into a brand of politics that will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, determine if the PML-N can claw its way back into power or be upended once again by players that feel insecure about the electoral strength that the party may display in a free and fair election.

The dichotomy inside the rank and file of the PML-N is telling. The core group of party leader Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz remains defiant in the face of changing dynamics. Many among this group, whom Eos has spoken with, genuinely believe that the unfolding situation is vindicating their leader’s stance. Time, they believe, is on their side.

They argue that, at this point, when the changing nature of the relationship between the PTI and the establishment may be throwing up opportunities for the party to oust the government, the leadership is clear that it will settle for nothing less than fresh elections.

“An in-house change does not suit us, whichever way you look at it,” says a party senator. He believes that PML-N would only damage itself if it became part of any interim set-up after the fall of the PTI government till the general elections. He argues that the debris of the PTI’s misgovernance would fall upon the new coalition and it would end up paying a heavy electoral price for it.

PML-N workers celebrate the victory of their party’s candidate in the by-poll held in the NA 133 constituency last week | M Arif/White Star
PML-N workers celebrate the victory of their party’s candidate in the by-poll held in the NA 133 constituency last week | M Arif/White Star

“Let PTI and its backers deal with the mess they have created,” he says. “We can wait it out.”

But is it really this simple?

The very idea of a deal with the establishment triggers discomfort among the so-called ‘ideologues’ within the party, but many also realise that politics is the art of the possible. The question then veers towards the contents of a possible deal. In other words, what would it take for the PML-N to shake hands with the establishment and show the PTI government the door? Here’s where the party’s internal debates have hit a roadblock.

The hardliners’ argument: all the ‘false’ and politically-motivated cases against Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz should be taken back, the damage to their reputation should be reversed by an acknowledgement that whatever was done in the post-Panama era was wrong, fresh elections should be called, the establishment should step back from the political process and guarantee no electoral manipulations will happen. Oh, and yes, an apology for all the wrongs done is also required. If the other side is agreed to such terms, the PML-N may shake hands.

“We have a trust deficit with them,” admits a party parliamentarian who served in the previous cabinet of Prime Minister Sharif. “Every time our leaders have reached out to them, they have ended up in jail.” He points out that, in the absence of any guarantors, the other side has to deliver on the terms before a deal can be agreed upon.

All this, of course, is a big ask. Perhaps the party leadership wants to punch above its weight because it feels it does not have its back against the wall. Senior members argue that the party has survived the worst of times without showing any cracks. It remains the most formidable electoral presence in Punjab and probably the strongest contestant going into the next elections. If it did not dilute its demands during the worst of times, why should it do so now, when the political dynamics are changing in its favour?

There is however a complication.

The father-daughter duo has subtly changed the direction of its attack on opponents in the last few months. While Maryam continues to target the former DG ISI by name, there is little mention of other establishment figures in their verbal onslaughts. Some party insiders believe the strategy to name individuals and isolate them from the institution has paid dividends. It is however a high-risk strategy if the person being isolated returns to a powerful position.

Here’s where the pragmatists come into the picture. They believe now is as good a time as ever to engage constructively with the establishment, without insisting on extreme conditions that could end up being deal-breakers. However, they too do not support the PML-N becoming part of any interim set-up, even in Punjab, because that would only accrue bad dividends.

Party president Shehbaz Sharif occupies a critical space in this calculus. The last three years have seen him negotiate a tricky path within the party under the overhang of competing narratives. He has made no secret of the fact that he wants the party to engage with the establishment instead of confronting it.

This has remained his steadfast opinion over the years but never has it led him to consider breaking ranks with his elder brother. In the last three years, he has been engaging the establishment despite the fact that he was sent behind bars for extended periods of time. Party sources confirm that he was instrumental in getting Nawaz Sharif out of jail and flown off to London.

Nawaz Sharif gives a speech from London, 2021 saw many such virtual addresses | File photo
Nawaz Sharif gives a speech from London, 2021 saw many such virtual addresses | File photo

In the complex and entangled political matrix today, Shehbaz Sharif is, however, seen as the most viable option for the country’s top office, were it to fall vacant. Opposition sources say he would be acceptable to most key stakeholders in the system if he became the party’s choice to lead a future set-up.

His track record of efficient and effective governance now stands him in good stead, even among those who had voted for other parties. One such prominent industrialist from Punjab, whose family had joined the PTI prior to the 2018 elections, said recently that, after having suffered the governance in Punjab these last three years, he would seriously consider voting for the PML-N. “But only if Shehbaz is the choice to lead,” he added.

If the PTI government rides over this present storm and cruises across the 2022 budget, there are greater chances that it would have regained a semblance of control of the situation. The appointment of the new army chief in the later part of next year would then be the last difficult challenge overcome by Prime Minister Khan. From then onwards, it would be a straight run to the 2023 general elections.

However, Shehbaz’s options remain connected to the choices that Nawaz Sharif makes. As things stand today, these remain unclear, even though — according to party insiders — there are growing voices within the party urging Nawaz Sharif to display some flexibility in face of fresh opportunities. But the jury is still out on this.

The question then is, how to negotiate a path to fresh elections at the earliest while addressing the concerns of the other players. If there is a reliable channel of communication between the party leadership and the establishment, it remains hidden from view even for senior party leaders.

Despite these internal convolutions and succession dynamics, the PML-N remains the central player in the current imbroglio. Its actions and decisions can ease the traffic congestion on D-Chowk and set the course for the events of the next few months. But detailed conversations with party insiders show that the party is nowhere near a clarity-based decision. The hemming and hawing continues unabated — much to the delight of the PTI government.

THE PPP

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is desperate to wear the crown.

Ever since it parted ways with the PDM earlier in the year and began to chart its own course, the PPP has been pushing, urging and cajoling the PML-N to hunt down Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar with it. The party has also cosied up to the establishment — not that it would admit it — and is now the focus of fresh attention within the framework of possible political alternatives. The game that the PPP is playing is a complex one.

At the heart of this complexity lies the desire to manoeuver a change in the centre by isolating the PTI from its support base, and stitching together a new ‘coalition of the willing’ for an interim period till the next elections. If the PML-N is unwilling to lead this coalition being the largest party in the opposition, then the PPP is unreluctantly willing to offer its services. It’s a big ambition, but so far it outweighs the party’s capacity to make it happen.

But when has this incapacity stopped former President Asif Ali Zardari from pulling an electoral rabbit out of his hat? Precisely because of this, a delicate move is afoot to nudge the major players towards an outcome in which all get their pound of the flesh.

Notice the extra PPP effort to focus on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari did a successful jalsa there recently and this has emboldened the party to make further ingress into the province that has traditionally had a decent PPP presence.

Notice also the extra effort in Punjab to find a toehold. The result of the NA 133 by-election has also emboldened the PPP and its plans to find traction in a province that once swayed to the Bhutto name. Although the PPP candidate lost, the 30,000 or so vote tally is fine consolation, given that its candidate got just 5,000 votes in the 2018 election. Granted that the PTI was out of the race, but the symbolic value of a PPP candidate getting 30,000 votes in the heart of Lahore is not lost on many.

But the real prize is south Punjab. With nearly four dozen national assembly seats from the region, the PPP leadership reckons that if it can get the electables of the region to hook their wagons with them — as they did with the PTI just prior to the 2018 elections — then the PPP can bag precious seats from here to add to the tally required to become a major contestant for power at the centre.

But before the elections, there’s this minor question of how to oust the PTI government. The PPP makes no bones about the fact that the establishment — as the clearly designated elephant in the room — has to shift its support away from the government. This is one reason why the PPP opted out of the PDM alliance after refusing to play hardball with the establishment on the issue of resignations from the assemblies.

It has now occupied the space between the PML-N and the establishment, and is finding it relatively easier to win over politicians who had abandoned it for the PTI. The PPP wants to fan the perception that the wind is at its back, and that it can stitch together an impressive numbers game with the momentum this wind is providing.

But it is drawing a blank with the PML-N. While the pragmatists in the PML-N have engaged with Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and even discussed the pros and cons of a possible in-house change in the Punjab and the centre, the hardliners are refusing to play ball. Without the PML-N numbers, the PPP stands little chance of bringing about a change in the centre. Try as it might, it has been unable to explain the benefits of an interim set-up to the PML-N.

For the PPP, it is a frustrating place to be at. It can see the crown, but it can’t touch it.

In this October 31 file photo, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi addresses a press conference 
after the government and TLP reached an agreement. Mufti Munibur Rehman, National Assembly 
Speaker Asad Qaiser and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan are 
also seen | Mohammad Asim/White Star
In this October 31 file photo, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi addresses a press conference after the government and TLP reached an agreement. Mufti Munibur Rehman, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan are also seen | Mohammad Asim/White Star

THE ESTABLISHMENT

The high command has been emphasising the last three years that Pakistan needs democratic stability and continuity. Many senior figures have told journalists in off-the-record conversations that the tradition of pulling down governments before they complete their five-year mandate has been detrimental to the system.

On the surface, the optics are fine. Routine meetings and briefings continue as normal and the business of the state is conducted as per procedure. But underneath this calm surface there is an undercurrent of tension that refuses to subside. Some even call it a trust deficit.

According to insiders, over the last few weeks, there has been some subtle messaging of intent between power centres that has done little to assuage concerns that the same page has lost much of its same-ness.

What is harder to assess is if these undercurrents will have a direct impact on the volatile political situation. The establishment guards its turf jealously and gives institutional interests a high priority. This is why many eyebrows were raised when the postings of numerous three-star officers were held up for a few weeks in the wake of the delay in the notification of the new DG ISI.

Everything worked out in the end, in the sense that what the establishment wanted it got, but the very fact that internal workings of the institution were impacted by a political controversy has raised many red flags.

But flags fluttering harmlessly in the wind — red or otherwise — hardly constitute an action. There is little solid evidence as of today that the establishment is ready to pick sides yet again. The last few years have been a rocky ride in more ways than one and institutional interests demand that it be shielded from further finger-pointing. This demands a cautious pivot away from being the prime supporter of the PTI government — at the expense of other political players — and moving more towards the centre.

It is a move that is being keenly watched. Will it happen? The next few weeks may provide an answer.

SO WHAT NOW?

There are no good options on offer as the political traffic jam gets more entangled with each passing day. “Something has to give soon,” says a former federal minister. “This gridlock cannot sustain for long.”

While that may be true, there is no denying that the PTI government is facing the gravest challenge of its three-year tenure. The ouster of the government may not be imminent, but neither is it improbable. If the government survives beyond the next few months, it would be a direct outcome of the other players failing to reach an understanding of what to do next and how to do it.

The economic situation is expected to worsen in the coming weeks before it starts to improve. If it starts to improve. For the citizens, more pain is in store. The horrific Sialkot incident has added to the growing sense of alarm that the country is adrift. The government may have spoken strong words in wake of the tragedy, but the fact remains that the recent appeasement of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has strengthened it ideologically as well as politically. The fact that the PPP had to make a deal with it in NA 133, as a result of which it secured a surprisingly high vote tally, is evidence enough that the TLP factor in the electoral politics of Punjab is growing stronger by the day. This will test the government as it struggles to balance its rhetoric against the requirements of political alliance-making.

But if the PTI government rides over this present storm and cruises across the 2022 budget, there are greater chances that it would have regained a semblance of control of the situation. The appointment of the new army chief in the later part of next year would then be the last difficult challenge overcome by Prime Minister Khan. From then onwards, it would be a straight run to the 2023 general elections.

A year is an infinity in Pakistani politics. With a number of moving parts drawing unsynchronised patterns on the country’s landscape, the real and immediate challenge is to navigate through the complexities of the next few weeks. Till then, it is anyone’s game.


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
He tweets @Fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 12th, 2021

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