THE shifting sands of Pakistani politics seems to have taken an ominous turn with the opposition alliance finally tabling a no-confidence motion against the prime minister. The decision demonstrates the confidence of the combined opposition that it has mustered enough votes in the National Assembly to oust the PTI government.
It is surely a calculated gamble but the odds are heavily against the PTI ruling coalition. There is, however, no precedence in Pakistan’s political history of any elected government having been removed through a vote of no-confidence. The game is on with both sides engaging in political wheeling and dealing. It will be another two weeks of uncertainty before the voting can take place. Given the unpredictability of Pakistani politics nothing can be taken for granted at this stage.
There has been a major shift in the country’s political scene over the last few months with the two main opposition parties — the PML-N and PPP — joining hands against the government. The perception that the military leadership has distanced itself from the government has given a further boost to the opposition.
In order to increase the pressure on the administration, the opposition planned a march on Islamabad before the no-confidence vote. That has further charged the political atmosphere. The government is certainly feeling the heat, as is evident by the prime minister’s move to appease his estranged coalition partners.
Explainer: How does a no-confidence motion work?
It is a calculated gamble but the odds are heavily against the PTI ruling coalition.
But it is the widening cracks within the ruling party that may mark the end game. The growing ranks of dissidents have worsened the woes of the prime minister. The latest revolt against the Punjab chief minister signals the unravelling of the party that could also threaten the survival of the PTI government at the centre.
While the opposition alliance is all geared up for the final battle the prime minister is vowing to fight till the end. His decision to go to the public seems to be a desperate move to salvage the situation. But that may not help prevent the slide that is underway. His speech at a public rally in south Punjab last week indicates that he is fumbling under pressure. His populist thundering has further exposed his vulnerability.
Interestingly, it is not only the opposition leaders who have been the target of his attack; he has also publicly slammed the Western nations for what he describes as their double standards. It is rare for a head of government to deploy a sensitive foreign policy matter for domestic political purposes.
While the prime minister’s indiscretion and irresponsible statements in the past seriously damaged our diplomatic relations, his latest comments at a recent public rally were most inappropriate and exposed his lack of understanding of critical foreign and security policy issues.
It seems to be a deliberate move on the part of the prime minister to reinforce the theory of a foreign conspiracy against his government. It is a typical ploy of populist politics to play the nationalist card in times of crises. But the gimmickry is unlikely to work as the situation is completely slipping out of his control.
It is without doubt the most serious political challenge encountered by the PTI government which is more than halfway through its term. In fact, it is the internal party revolt that presents a bigger problem for the PTI government — more than the challenge from the opposition alliance. It seems that the prime minister is ready to dump his hand-picked Punjab chief minister, Usman Buzdar, in order to defuse the rebellion within the party but the move may have come too late.
A major problem is that there is no consensus on any other candidate. The PML-Q will not accept anyone other than Pervaiz Elahi as the chief minister. With the no-confidence motion hanging over the head of the PTI government the PML-Q has upped its stakes. The party’s bargaining position seems to have been further strengthened with the reported offer by the opposition to give the top provincial office to the PML-Q leader.
But there is no likelihood that the prime minister would hand over the most powerful post in the key province to a coalition partner. The schism in the party is too serious to be resolved by patchwork tactics. Given its very thin majority in the Punjab provincial assembly, the PTI government’s fall seems imminent if the PML-Q decides to pull out the rug from under it. That would alter the entire political dynamics in the country.
A change in the government in Punjab would have a domino effect inevitably leading to the collapse of the existing dispensation. The prime minister’s move to mobilise public opinion with his populist rhetoric is not likely to change the unfolding power dynamics.
It is evident that despite controlling the government the PTI has lost the popular political space in the country’s most powerful province. Besides other factors, the prime minister’s choice of chief minister has been a major reason for the erosion of the ruling party’s political base in the province.
Therefore, it is not surprising to see the growing discontent in the PTI’s ranks in Punjab. Without resolving the Punjab government crisis, it would be extremely difficult for the prime minister to defeat the no-confidence motion. The opposition claims that many PTI National Assembly members from the province would be willing to jump ship if they are assured of a ticket from the PML-N in the next elections.
But it will not be easy for the opposition alliance to buy the loyalties of the PTI dissidents either. It is a murky power game with the members going for the highest offer. Moreover, what happens next will also depend on whether the security establishment stays neutral in the game.
The outcome of the no-confidence vote would determine the future course of politics in the country. The ouster of the PTI government may not end the prevailing political uncertainty. There is still no agreement among the opposition parties over the next move if the no-confidence motion succeeds. And a defeat for the opposition could lead to the government turning more authoritarian.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2022