The defeat in the Senate has come at a price steeper than most in the PML-N and PPP had imagined. It may have just derailed their plans — seeped as they were in hope — to bring down the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan before the budget. So what happened?
Here are five factors that might explain how the opposition mistimed, miscued and misfired, and how this humiliating defeat may impact the shape of things to come.
Both the opposition parties have been trying to perform a high wire balancing act with the establishment for the last few months. The calculation factored into this act is that if the establishment can stop blowing winds in the government’s sails, they can topple it with numbers that they don’t have but will have once the wind stops. This has meant both parties muting their snide attacks at the ‘selectors’ and being open to greater engagement. Such as the SBP Bill. Red Zone insiders say there was an unspoken acknowledgement that the bill would go through because it was essential for Pakistan to get back into the IMF programme. But then something went wrong. The broad understanding within the opposition camp could not translate into a coherent strategy. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing and no one apparently took the overt responsibility to engage with the Dilawar Khan group that sits with the opposition but subsequently voted with the government.
Complications surfaced within the relationship between PML-N and PPP. While the PPP has been cosying up to the establishment for a while now, and reaping some quiet benefits in the wake of the formation of the PDM and its eventual departure from the alliance, the PML-N is more of a Johnny-come-lately wiggling its way into the tent. That wiggling remains hesitant and full of doubts, but continues to happen all the same in the expectation that it will lead to some understanding that would led to the facilitation of an in-house change. But while the final destination of both the PPP and the PML-N may be the same — or thereabouts — the roads leading to this destination are separate. In the power game underway in the Red Zone, both opposition parties bring different strengths to the big table, and these may not always be complimentary. The lack of trust between the two is not new. It reared its head again during this episode. PML-N sources now say the PPP leadership has once again tried to play a fast one with them for reasons that remain shrouded in informed conjecture.
The opposition’s number game is now a mess. With PPP playing its own high stakes poker and the PML-N struggling to figure out what it really wants, the small window of opportunity that was hyped for an in-house change appears to be closing fairly swiftly. Insiders now believe that if the opposition cannot mobilise a serious threat against the government inside the parliament, it is unlikely to pose any significant threat to the government on the streets. Devoid of the perception that it can muster the numerical strength to overturn the government’s majority on the floor of the house, it cannot do much with the numbers it may be able to inject into its long marches this month and the next. Red Zone watchers believe that the power equilibrium remains unsettled and vague in the sense that it is not clear to all the key stakeholders which way the wind is blowing. Decision-making without solid intelligence is always risky.
This is why there is now a creeping acceptance among the opposition that their turn to oust the PTI government may have to wait till the general elections. This is still a very preliminary assessment and remains subject to unexpected events but the events of the last few days, and especially after the drubbing in the Senate, more and more people in their camp are forcing themselves to come to terms with this possible reality. But this generates its own fresh dynamics. “This is, or was, the time that the government was at its weakest and we had the best chance to bring it down,” says an opposition senator who admits that the recent defeat has hurt them badly. He may be right. If the government can survive these political skirmishes and get to present the federal budget, it may open up fresh opportunities to strengthen itself politically, economically and also in terms of its relationship with the establishment. “If we miss this chance,” says the senator, “then all bets are off.” The PM then will appoint the new army chief and will also have the opportunity to time the elections next year for maximum advantage.
The year ahead will provide PTI plenty of advantages. It will present an election budget and try to find fiscal space despite the limitations of the IMF programme to launch populist schemes. It can also utilise this time to bring inflation under control while aggressively pursuing schemes like Ehsaas and health card. There will be another plus. With the in-house change option closing, PPP and PML-N will go their own way to prepare for elections while pursuing their own paths to engagement with the establishment. The combined pressure of the opposition would therefore be lifted from the shoulders of the government. Then it is a separate race towards the elections.
Editorial: Opposition’s hot air
All these five factors are a by-product of the growing perception that the opposition doesn’t have what it takes to oust the PTI government. This perception in turn can generate its own self-fulfilling reality thereby convincing people that the government is stable enough to survive and therefore solid enough to remain allied with. In all of this, the government can itself take little credit. It has not played its cards well. Luckily for it, the opposition has played its cards even worse. Whoever drummed up the strategy to lose like this in the senate should be ready to pay a steep cost with interest.
Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2022