That magic number

Published February 12, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

BRINGING the house down becomes more than a figure of speech when the figures become more important than the speech itself.

This appears to be increasingly the case as the combined opposition musters up its momentum to rearrange the numerical reality of today’s political chessboard and checkmate Prime Minister Imran Khan. Like an orchestra building up its symphony to a crescendo, the opposition is ratcheting up the pressure towards a climactic conclusion by the end of March. Or that’s what they would like us to believe.

If it were only this simple.

The non-linear progression of political developments injects a healthy dose of complexity into the equation. This complexity consists of various moving parts that are not easy to synchronise at one given point in the coming weeks. The matrix of these moving parts looks like so:

(1) To reach the magical number of 172 in the National Assembly to bring a no-confidence against PM Khan, the combined opposition will either have to wean away the allies from the government or get some PTI MNAs to break ranks.

(2) The allies’ shifting would simplify the complexity, but in order for this to happen, they would require the famed ‘signal’ which so far is not visible in any substantive form. It is a fact that the allies are flirting with the opposition thereby helping create a perception that the signal may have indeed been emitted but there is little to suggest that these allies are ready to go beyond their flirtatious overtures.

It had not been easy. In the initial contacts, nearly two dozen opposition senators had not been contactable.

(3) To break PTI MNAs, the PML-N will need to promise them tickets for the next elections. Although party secretary general Ahsan Iqbal has already stated on record that PML-N is considering this option in constituencies where they do not have their own strong candidates, this too shall require solid guarantees at a time when the government is also using the resources at its disposal to identify these disgruntled members and do what is necessary to keep them chained to the treasury benches.

(4) There is little clarity within the opposition camp about what comes next once the in-house change has been consummated. The PDM consultations may produce some convergence of views but the PPP is not part of the alliance and it is a central determinant for such an outcome to materialise. Those among the opposition who prefer the next government to continue till the scheduled elections in late 2023 have been unable to convince the PML-N leadership that this option is favourable to them.

(5) PM Imran Khan is not sitting idle. He has also war-gamed these scenarios. He may not have been successful as a prime minister but he was deadly in the opposition. Will he be deadlier now that he has tasted power once and knows the system from the inside? He will not roll over and play dead.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is someone who speaks hard-nosed sense. In recent weeks, he has been saying openly that a no-confidence against a sitting prime minister is not an easy task. In this context, his argument is that unless the establishment is neutral, chances of the no-confidence succeeding are not too bright. The timing for the move then is key. This timing is dependent on the assessment of the neutrality factor.

Red Zone Files: Senate defeat may prove to be the opposition's Waterloo

The recent fiasco in the Senate is a flashing red light. Some fresh information gleaned from various background conversations with people involved in the Senate vote on the State Bank bill shows that something was awry. The opposition had done its homework on the numbers game. They had counted out the Dilawar Khan group from their tally even though this group sits on the opposition benches. They crossed out the names of the senators who were unavailable for genuine reasons like travel or incarceration. At the end, they had a number. And many smiled.

They smiled because they believed they had done the work needed to win the numbers game. It had not been easy. In the initial contacts, nearly two dozen opposition senators had not been contactable. The party leaders were then approached to reach out to these people and ensure their presence in the Upper House on the day of the vote. These leaders had a firm word with their people. The timing of the voting day was also not a surprise as many in the opposition later claimed. The IMF deadline was around the corner and it was obvious that the government would call the vote any day. The opposition needed to be ready. It also had some inside information.

The day before the vote, the Senate secretariat had started issuing air travel tickets to PTI senators. This was a giveaway. The more alert among the opposition senators got wind of this and informed their colleagues accordingly. The vote was coming.

When the opposition had done its due diligence by contacting all its members and confirming their attendance on the day of the vote, its total count reached 45 senators. This was expected to be sufficient to block the government.

Then a strange thing happened. One opposition MNA travelling from Islamabad to Karachi a day before the vote saw an opposition senator on the same flight. He was puzzled. Why would a senator be leaving Islamabad when the crucial vote was around the corner? On landing, the MNA called his colleagues in the Senate and told them about their senator on his flight. This senator has been counted among the 45.

On the day of the vote, the opposition polled 43 votes. So did the government. The Senate chairman then cast his deciding vote in favour of the government and the bill passed. The opposition’s 45 count would have won the day. Two senators did not turn up in the house. One was the leader of the opposition Yousuf Raza Gilani. The other was the senator who was seen flying out of Islamabad. He belongs to the JUI-F.

That magic number. Poof! Snap a finger, and it’s gone.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2022

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