IT is not looking good.
Not that anyone should be surprised. When politics turns personal, defeat cannot be digested. Or comprehended. Or accepted. The events of the last few days have shown that Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government will do whatever it takes — whatever — to ensure that the vote of no-confidence is defeated. In such a scenario, there could be many casualties, including the process itself.
Which is why we are entering into a very dangerous phase where the constitutional government of the day is preparing to stretch the limits of a constitutional process and its requirements to the maximum. Beyond that limit lies a minefield littered with the consequences of blunders past.
Two pronouncements have triggered this dread. In the first one, cabinet ministers have interpreted the floor-crossing clause in a manner that has left legal experts baffled and lost for words. These ministers are insistent that the PM, as the leader of his party, can inform the speaker of the National Assembly that if some of the PTI MNAs turn up in parliament to participate in the vote of confidence despite being ordered by the leader not to do so, this would show their intent of disobeying the leader and therefore they should be disqualified and their vote rejected. Prominent jurists like Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan and many others have totally rejected this bizarre interpretation on two key grounds:
What do you do when the government is a participant in worsening the situation and taking liberties with the law?
(1) The disqualification clause will only be triggered when a legislator casts his vote against his own party thereby crossing the floor to the other side. The act of his voting will therefore constitute the act of floor crossing. The very fact that his vote stands counted is proof that he has voted against his party and therefore stands guilty of floor crossing that will lead to his disqualification as a member of the National Assembly. To argue that the member can be disqualified before casting his vote amounts to penalising him for his intent instead of his action. This is a mockery of the law.
(2) The speaker cannot disqualify any member on his own. His role is that of a post office whereby if he determines that a member has crossed the floor he will send a reference to the Election Commission which will then hold hearings and ultimately decide if the member should be disqualified. Even if the ECP disqualifies the member, the member still has the option of appealing the decision at the Supreme Court. To say that the speaker should disqualify the PTI members who defy their leader’s order not to attend the session of parliament shows absolute ignorance of the law. And mal-intent too.
What if the government insists on acting upon these incredulous interpretations? What if the speaker actually does pronounce a ruling rejecting the votes of PTI MNAs voting against their leader? What if based on such rejections he declares the vote of no-confidence defeated and prorogues the session of the National Assembly? Will Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government declare victory and walk away, even knowing that they have gone against the dictates of the Constitution?
The opposition will have no choice but to petition the courts against such a brazen illegality. What will the courts do? Some say the speaker’s ruling cannot be challenged in the court, but other experts maintain that the courts will not tolerate this kind of disregard for the Constitution. A legal battle will ensue. But that’s not the real source of dread.
That dread emanates from the depressing realisation that the legitimate government of the day is actually ready and willing to go down this path in order to win. ‘Whatever it takes’ in fact takes up a frightening connotation. A constitutional crisis looms large. Is it actually being invited?
The answer segues into the other pronouncement that is triggering an intense bout of anxiety. When saying that the PTI will forbid its MNAs from attending the session being called for the vote of no-confidence, some cabinet ministers have stated that they will stop those who plan to defy the orders and still go to parliament. Physically stop them? Detain them? Bar them from all movement? Just pause for a second and let this sink in. The ruling party is threatening its own members and proclaiming openly that they will force their members to stay away from the session. A few irresponsible ministers have also said that their supporters would surround the homes of those PTI MNAs who will go against their party leader’s orders. Is this incitement to violence?
The situation is ripe for dreadful things to happen. Situations often are. This is precisely why governments are in place. They have to ensure that situations do not spiral out of control; that the application of law is ensured to control such situations and that those responsible for pushing such situations into a dangerous trajectory are dealt with according to the law. But what do you do when the government is a participant in worsening the situation and taking liberties with the law? Who do you turn to?
This is a question hovering in the capital’s tense air as the vote of no-confidence nears. Uncertainty breeds anxiety which in turns triggers fear. Many optimists thought that after the political debacles of the last two decades, we had learnt our lessons and were better equipped to resolve problems without putting the system at stake. Turns out these optimists had taken their own optimism a bit too seriously. As we stand on the precipice of yet another avoidable crisis, we may want to ponder over the fact why we are destined to repeat old mistakes instead of committing new ones.
Such reflection is the last thing on the political stakeholders’ minds while they are busy pretending to save the system in the guise of wrecking it. One wrong move and we are back to square one.
It is not looking good.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2022