LAHORE: With major opposition parties looking to build up pressure on Prime Minister Imran Khan — jointly or separately, in the weeks and months to come through either a no-confidence motion or street protests or even a combination of both — recent twists and turns in Pakistan’s politics are keeping many guessing about the country’s political future.
Over the last few days, the top leadership of the PPP converged in Lahore to meet and discuss with the PML-N the possibility of closer cooperation among the opposition parties in parliament for ousting the ‘Kaptaan’ through a no-confidence motion. This was followed by a visit of the leaders of the MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P), a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) coalition ally, which spawned speculation about the future of the existing setup and added to the prevailing political uncertainty.
“If politics is the art of the possible, Pakistani politicians make it look like they either have too few possibilities or too many. These days it’s mostly the latter — with every political player trying to ensure that they maximise what is possible for them while, at the same time, limit the possibilities for others,” commented a political observer, who spoke to Dawn on condition of anonymity.
“Look at how the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is trying to stretch the ‘possible’ by meeting the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the nemesis of its ruling coalition partner, PTI; it thanked the PML-N for supporting its protest against another major opposition player, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), at a time when the opposition might be jettisoning its mutual hatred to consider — once again — a joint fight against Imran Khan.”
Observers say ouster may turn Imran into political martyr
The MQM isn’t the only PTI ally stretching and posturing. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) too is pandering to the PML-N and PPP without committing anything just like Muttahida.
“The government’s allies are continuously looking for a better deal from the PTI; they won’t let go of any opportunity that can get to help them to secure a greater share in power,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president and CEO of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
The opposition says they want to overthrow an “unrepresentative” government, accusing the Imran Khan’s government of putting pressure on the judiciary, media and mismanaging the economy. The prime minister, who came to power on an anti-corruption campaign, says the campaign is aimed at blackmailing him into dropping corruption cases against opposition leaders.
But Mr Mehboob feels that the prime minister has left the opposition with no choice but to go for his ouster. “Imran Khan has adopted a tough posture with the opposition parties, calling them plunderers and corrupt, setting agencies like NAB, FIA and IB after them to make their life difficult. The opposition now seems to have come to the conclusion that it has to fight for its survival. They have now become active to put pressure on him and remove him.”
He thinks that the opposition parties would prefer going after the PTI government, but would settle for the prime minister’s trophy to avoid (electoral and legal) complications that could arise from the fall of the central setup altogether.
The political commentator Dawn spoke to agrees with Mr Mehboob.
“I think it is a ‘Get Imran’ operation. If this happens we may see the PTI purge itself of its leader and his close aides to weave together a broader administration of mostly technocrats for the rest of its tenure focusing on economic relief and development.”
He is of the view that it isn’t difficult to engineer a rebellion within the PTI since its politicians (the security establishment) had helped the skipper break from the PML-N and the PPP. “These people need a sign and they will switch sides without wasting time.”
The increase in efforts to broaden the opposition alliance against Imran Khan and his administration has left many wondering as to who is behind the move.
The recent tensions between the premier and the military leadership on the appointment of a new intelligence chief are believed to have made the Imran-led setup vulnerable.
Even the PM’s recent statements have spurred speculations of his deteriorating relations with the army chief. On Jan 7, he said he has not yet ‘thought about an extension to the chief of the army staff’s tenure as there is still time for his (second) term to end’.
Almost two weeks later, the prime minister came out with yet another statement, warning that ‘he will prove to be an even more dangerous adversary than as the country’s premier if he is ousted from government’.
“I wish to warn you: If I am ousted from the government, I will be more dangerous to you… If I take to the streets, you will have no place to hide because the people have seen your true colours,” the premier said during a live broadcast on the TV channels. Apparently, he was addressing the opposition, but many construed it as a barb aimed at the establishment.
Mr Mehboob, however, does not see behind the opposition’s frenetic efforts against Imran Khan. “The ISI episode must have created some stress (in his relations with the military) but we do not have any evidence to prove that the establishment is supporting the opposition. Indeed, the army chief may be looking for an extension but we cannot be so sure about it.”
Unlike some others, he thinks that Imran Khan will complete his tenure. “If the move against him succeeds, he will instantly become a martyr. So I don’t think he will be dislodged.”
Some insist that the opposition is pushing ‘reports’ of having tacit support of the military to move against the PTI leader from a ‘position of strength’ to forge a rebellion within the PTI. “If something is going on behind the scene, we would not know it unless something actually happens. Until then people can keep guessing,” the anonymous political commentator concludes.
For now, no one can be sure if the opposition’s efforts to bring Imran down succeed or not, until they do.
Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2022