Less than a week after opposition parties submitted a no-confidence resolution to topple Prime Minister Imran Khan, the odds seem to be stacking up against him, and fast. With his allies and dissenting PTI lawmakers demanding their ‘pound of flesh’ in exchange for support against the combined might of the opposition, Mr Khan has embarked on a veritable tour de Pakistan in a bid to stir up the passions of his supporters — before a vote in the National Assembly seals his government’s fate.

The government, and indeed PM Khan himself, is clearly banking on its allies to help them pass the trial of no-trust, and none have been in the spotlight more than the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.

The Q League, as it is also known, has a reputation for being a party ‘for all seasons’. Having split from the Nawaz Sharif-led Muslim League in the wake of his government’s ouster in 1999, the party has enjoyed its time in the sun.

Even though Shehbaz Sharif is commonly associated with the ‘underpass-isation’ of Punjab’s capital, one must keep in mind that the Chaudhrys are the architects of Lahore 2.0, i.e. the elaborate road networks, Rescue 1122 and the food street in Gawalmandi, among other things, were all introduced when Parvez Elahi was the provincial chief executive under Gen Musharraf’s rule.

Senior journalist and political commentator Sohail Warraich argues that even though they only have a handful of seats in the National Assembly, PML-Q can still make itself relevant “if it sides with the opposition”. According to him, the party still has some cards to play in terms of the politics of Punjab, which dominates the legislature by virtue of its size.

But there are those who feel that PML-Q may have overplayed its hand in demanding the top job in Punjab from both the PTI and the combined opposition.

While the opposition camp has already refused their demand, its leadership is still hoping against hope that they may succeed in forcing the hand of the politically-embattled prime minister.

This is despite Sheikh Rashid’s statement in Quetta that his Kaptaan would not be blackmailed by a party with only five seats in the assembly. Rashid, you may recall, was once very much in the Shujaat-Elahi fold, and knows the Chaudhrys ‘inside out’, so to speak.

But judging from the statements of PML-Q leaders, they will decide which side to throw their weight behind in a day or two, or when the much-talked about ‘establishment’ finally decides to end its neutrality; whichever comes first.

PM in crisis management-mode

Ever since opposition parties revealed their plans to overthrow him through a vote of no-confidence, Imran Khan has constantly pledged to fight off the move, warning his opponents of ‘dire consequences’ if the motion fails.

He also announced a freeze on electricity and fuel prices for four months through June to win over voters he may have to turn to for his re-election, if the no-trust is carried. This package has already landed the government in hot waters with the International Monetary Fund.

But developments over the last few days show that the PTI is prepared to do everything and anything – from shows of strength through its workers to misinterpreting the floor-crossing law – to defeat the opposition’s motion. For example, the planned PTI rally outside parliament on the eve of the no-trust vote has spawned fears that the ruling party intends to ‘forcibly’ stop dissenting PTI lawmakers, and even opposition MNAs, from entering the assembly to cast their vote.

Then, ministers like Shah Mahmood Qureshi have warned that PTI supporters could “surround the homes” of lawmakers suspected to be voting with the opposition. If any treasury member manages to enter the house, the PTI insists they would be disqualified by the speaker on the spot and prevented from casting their votes.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is not possible – constitutional experts agree that the speaker’s powers do not come into effect unless a legislator has cast his vote against the party whip in a no-confidence vote or on a money bill – the threat is enough to give some members second thoughts.

Playing political poker

On their part, the opposition parties – who currently hold 162 seats but require 172 votes in the 342-member lower house to remove the prime minister – claim to have mustered the support of around 190 lawmakers, including dissenting PTI MNAs.

Support from any of the PTI’s allies – PML-Q, MQM-P and BAP, who have a total of 17 votes between them – would be a major boon for the opposition. One thing is for certain; the ruling party will be in trouble, even if one ally leaves its side.

But the opposition is keeping its cards close to its chest; only the top leadership of PML-N, PPP and JUI-F are believed to have complete knowledge of their exact strategy for voting day, when they promise to spring a surprise for the ruling party.

Many political observers believe that the reason for the government allies’ reluctance to commit their support for either side is the ‘neutral’ posture the country’s powerful military establishment is believed to have adopted in this crisis.

“I think they are all waiting for the call from Pindi, which may not come. In such a scenario, the allies will have to make their own decisions on the basis of their ability to blackmail either side,” a political science expert, who wishes not to be named, told Dawn.

Opposition leaders have also repeatedly stated that the establishment is neutral this time around, unlike a few months ago, when it was believed that PTI and Imran Khan had the full backing of the military.

“The confidence being exuded by the opposition parties shows that the ruling PTI has lost the backing of the establishment. This is not a good omen for Imran Khan, who is facing opponents who are way more skilled than him when it comes to political wheeling-dealing,” the political expert said.

In his opinion, it was “the army’s support that helped him survive the challenges thrown up by his opponents in the past; but no more. He appears to be on his own to face the current challenge to his rule.”

Imran Khan’s outburst during the recent public rally in Dir, where he said “humans either side with good or evil; only animals remain neutral” also indicates that he has lost the support of the military leadership.

“I cannot say if the opposition is being helped by the establishment in its campaign to take down the PTI government, but I am certain the prime minister no longer enjoys the support he had from the army since before the 2018 elections,” he added.

But what prompted this change? Political analysts believe the tensions between Imran Khan and the army chief over the appointment of a new spy chief last year created a gulf between the two.

It is also widely believed that the premier has refused to give the army chief another extension when he retires in November.

For its part, the military has clearly said on several occasions now that it does not interfere in politics and should not be dragged into such matters.

A problem like Buzdar

The no-trust move is not the only headache for the prime minister. A large chunk of the PTI in Punjab, led by his old friends Jehangir Khan Tareen and Aleem Khan – who financed the party’s election campaign in 2018 and were instrumental in stealing ‘electables’ from the PML-N and PPP – have come out openly with the demand to replace Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, saying that he has failed to deliver.

According to a Mr Warraich, the mass mobilization campaign undertaken by the prime minister in recent weeks betrays his desperation. “I think the mass contact he has embarked on… shows that he is campaigning for his party’s re-election as an opposition leader. He is known to be fighter from his cricket days and is not going to give up easily. But if he falls, he plans to portray himself as a political martyr; as if all the crooked politicians had ganged up against him because he was trying to recover from them the country’s plundered billions.”

“Even if the opposition succeeds in overthrowing him, Mr Khan is not going to go away any time soon,” Mr Warraich concluded.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2022

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