No confidence: How did Prime Minister Imran Khan end up here?

If the premier stays, it won’t be because of the merits of his tenure; if he goes, it won’t be because of his failings either.
Published March 17, 2022

Said Mao once, "Everything under heaven is in utter chaos. The situation is excellent."

With an all-or-nothing showdown imminent in the National Assembly — the vote of no-confidence against the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan — chaos isn't too distant an idea. Though the tension between the prime minister and the parliament that elected him goes back some time, four major players (some more major than others) are now fully in the fray: Islamabad, its allies, the opposition, and the establishment.

Though the start of this story is hard to pin down, we can begin with the summer of 2018, when Imran Khan won the top job at last. He swept to victory with over 545,000 votes from five different constituencies, a range unmatched by any other hopeful in the past. For the same gent that had polled just 911 votes from Karachi South in 1997, it had been quite the climb. "I started this struggle 22 years ago, and today I have been given a chance to fulfill what I dreamed for this country," he said. "We will run Pakistan like it’s never been run before."

But getting started required the assembly’s approval: a simple majority in the House. When Mr Khan did win 176 votes from the Honourable Members, it was slimmer than the slimmest majority of any of the four prime ministers in the previous decade.

Read: Imran Khan ─ from flamboyant cricketer to prime minister

Teething pains

The early signs were nonetheless encouraging. The new premier promised more relevance for parliament, starting with Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), the Westminster tradition where the premier answers members of parliament each week. Per one such premier, Tony Blair, "PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question."

Come as it did from a heartless war criminal, this was high praise. If implemented in Pakistan, the assembly would have returned to the heart of the system. But the proposed PMQs were never to be, and soon enough faded out.

Instead, the new parliament stalled before it started, squabbling over Shehbaz Sharif’s nomination as chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), parliament’s most powerful panel — tasked with monitoring how the government spends its money. To ensure balance, the PAC had been chaired by a Leader of the Opposition more or less since 2008 — Chaudhry Nisar had taken on the PPP’s spending, while Khursheed Shah watched over the PML-N’s.

With Shehbaz, however, the ruling party said no: one could either fight corruption or be charged with it. But when the opposition refused to retract his name, the deadlock began slowing down the new parliament’s momentum. Other committees remained in flux, and work didn’t get done. Mr Sharif’s people pointed to parliamentary convention (albeit one not strictly followed: the PPP’s Nadeem Afzal Chan was nominated chairman after Chaudhry Nisar’s resignation, while the PPP was still in power).

Eventually, the PTI caved, and Mr Sharif was appointed chairman. Yet despite all the ruckus, the PAC remained nonfunctional. By the time Shehbaz resigned from its chairmanship in 2019, he hadn’t presided over a meeting in nearly six months.

That first brawl set the tone for the rest of the parliamentary committees: the Speaker’s attempts at breaking the impasse through two new bipartisan panels — the almost identically named Parliamentary Committee on Legislative Business, and the Parliamentary Consultation Committee on Legislative Business — came to nothing.

As for the prime minister, he was seldom keen on consulting the opposition on any business at all, whether it be ECP appointments or world crises. This was also tied to something deeper — Mr Khan’s brand as an angry populist, ready to bust ‘the mafias’ that now sat within sneezing distance of him in the House. That wasn’t a minor affect — it cut to the core of his party’s rise.

The corruption crusade

Ever since its Lahore jalsa in 2011, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had smashed through the two-party system with the same playbook — heightening the difference between itself and the two big parties. The PPP and the PML-N — the children of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the chastened heirs of General Zia — were dubbed Pakistan’s most major problem: corrupt dynasties that had grown rich and prominent and powerful, even as the country sank in their shadow.

Imran Khan addresses a rally in Lahore on October 30, 2011. — Photo: File
Imran Khan addresses a rally in Lahore on October 30, 2011. — Photo: File

But now that the PTI had won the centre, the perils of parliamentary democracy required shaking hands and making up, at least to the extent of passing legislation. There was precedent as well: though the Bhuttos and Sharifs had spent much of the ‘90s acting as each other’s jailers, they had sobered up enough after General Musharraf’s coup to hold their noses, and sign the Charter of Democracy.

That charter meant keeping the gloves on, and the military’s gloves at bay. It also meant passing landmark laws: the Constitution saw massive changes, including the 18th and 25th Amendments. Though the relationship between the PML-N and the PPP was mostly fraught — from governor’s rule in Punjab to the arrest of Zardari crony Dr Asim — the charter lived, and parliament chugged on.

To the PTI, however, this was corruption at its most entrenched. Mr Khan called it a ‘charter of muk muka’, for covering up each other’s crimes. Nor did victory temper his views — his first address to the House as prime minister, on 17 August 2018, was extraordinary: "The people that looted this country, that put it in debt, I make this vow today, I make it before God, that I won’t spare a single one of them."

Over the next few months, accountability took centre-stage, as the PTI claimed khud-ehtesabi. In a first, two sitting provincial ministers were arrested; there were regular inquiries into scandals; and a culture of resignations started taking root.

Yet the focus of the accountability drive was glaringly obvious: writing for Arab News, journalist Benazir Shah listed some of the opposition bigwigs that were arrested (or rearrested) after Mr Khan came into power, "Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Khawaja Saad Rafique, Khawaja Salman Rafique, Shehbaz Sharif, Hamza Shehbaz, Khursheed Shah, Faryal Talpur, Agha Siraj Durrani, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Ahsan Iqbal and Maryam Nawaz Sharif."

Read More: Behind bars, out on bail, or out of the country in 2019?

With most of the top tier in and out of jail, the idea of a bipartisan consensus on practically anything faded from view. To hear the prime minister tell it, the political elite’s interests were under threat for the very first time. Though they would blackmail him as much as they could, he would never give in.

A National Accountability Bureau team, accompanied by the police, arrests PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari at his residence in Islamabad. — INP/ File
A National Accountability Bureau team, accompanied by the police, arrests PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari at his residence in Islamabad. — INP/ File

But then what came of such an anti-corruption drive? With the exception of the elder Sharif and his daughter — who were sentenced before Mr Khan took charge — not a single one of these cases resulted in conviction in the PTI’s three years. Even Mian sahib was put on a plane to London for the sake of medical treatment (a courtesy never extended to the Omni Group’s Anwar Majeed or, for that matter, countless sick prisoners).

For opposition members, now facing a flood of NAB call-up notices, there was also another calculus at work: convictions or not, a crusade against the political class kept the PTI’s base happy, while also hamstringing its opponents — if the price to pay was less legislative reform, then so be it. It became far likelier to listen to both sides of the aisle make their case on television, rather than in the House.

Editorial: Failure of accountability

Uphill numbers

In time, opting out of the parliamentary process became self-defeating. The basic idea of any democracy is that the people elect its representatives, and those representatives go on to make laws that better the lot of the people.

The PTI was already tied down by a thin majority in the House, and a minority in the Senate. As a workaround, joint sessions were used to bulldoze dozens of bills. Ordinances became the order of the day, as big-ticket reforms stalled. "No reforms can be made in the country unless the government enjoyed two-thirds majority in the National Assembly," said the prime minister as late as last month. "Running the government by giving [a] share to all is not a big deal, but if you want to bring about reforms you have to have a two-thirds majority."

Yet this would imply that reform could only be achieved through super-majorities — something our electoral winners haven’t had for the vast majority of this country’s existence — and with no constructive role for the opposition. While this chimed well with what the premier felt about his colleagues, it ended up shutting the door on major laws being passed. According to the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), the prime minister attended 10 per cent of the sessions in his first two-and-a-half years (his predecessor Nawaz Sharif was almost as casual, at 15pc).

Read: Ordinance factory

In the longer term, the lack of parliamentary processes also knocked aside the fragile consensus on which the two older parties had arrived — a vote of no-confidence was neither brought against the PPP’s Yusuf Raza Gilani and Raja Parvez Ashraf, nor against the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

The last prime minister to face such a vote was in 2006. Shaukat Aziz, the Honourable Member from Citibank, a man as divorced from the political process as the general that had parachuted him into the assembly. The vote before that one had been against Benazir Bhutto in 1989, on the heels of General Zia’s eleven years. Both failed.

Then again, it was also a question of numbers. Neither the PPP nor the PML-N had been Hamiltonian democrats lately — long after the ink had dried on the Charter of Democracy, Asif Zardari would joke about triggering the fall of the PML-N’s government in Balochistan, while Nawaz Sharif would petition the Supreme Court in a lawyer’s black tie against Yusuf Raza Gilani during the Memogate scandal. But votes of no-confidence against each other’s premiers went untried, as numbers games that had never once succeeded before.

Even so, Mr Khan isn't like those premiers. When it comes to the actual tally of seats, he is more vulnerable than most. Further narrowing that tally are the turncoats within, as the prime minister has found himself up against the same ‘electables’ that once claimed to have edged him to victory.

Electables and allies

In another life, Mr Khan had defined himself against electables — party-hopping constituency bosses that eked out victories through local influence. But after the bruising loss of the 2013 elections, the PTI fast shed its skin as a third-party outsider. On the eve of the polls five years later, Mr Khan told this paper, "You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians."

He continued, "The political class here doesn’t change that much. You can introduce new actors but you can’t change the political class wholesale. This is why I give the example of Mahathir Mohamad, who changed Malaysia with the same political class by giving them clean leadership.’ Though he needed the usual "lotas" to get over the finish line, reform would start as soon as he got there: "It would be a compromise if I did not stick to my objectives after coming into power, and if I did not run a clean government." As for those that strayed, Mr Khan promised to kick them out.

Once in power, however, the prime minister’s cabinet resembled a Musharraf-era remix album, while Punjab was held up by the original band itself — the Chaudhrys of Gujrat.

Though few care to remember, it was well before the Panama Papers when Mr Khan petitioned the courts seeking his rivals’ disqualification. The gents he named as respondents in 2002 weren’t the Sharif brothers; they were Messrs Shujaat Hussain and Parvez Elahi, lords of all they beheld at the time, while the PTI was a one-seat party.

Commenting on the case, and the Chaudhrys’ rise and rise with it, the late, great columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote, "By the time [Zahoor Elahi’s] politically motivated murder was executed, the “joint family system” consisted of a row of seven or eight palatial mansions on millionaires’ row in Lahore, plus a large industrial empire financed by the country’s nationalised banks and the cooperative societies of Punjab." Mr Cowasjee thought to weigh in himself: "According to the law, as it stands today, it appears that both the Chaudhrys fully qualify for disqualification."

But the past is another country. Twenty years later, the Chaudhrys have snatched up prize after prize from their sheepish coalition partners. On the basis of just five seats in the National Assembly, and ten in Punjab, they’ve landed the Speakership in Lahore, as well as two ministries in Islamabad. Mr Khan’s recent wooing of Moonis Elahi, the sort of charmless dynast he otherwise decries, is a case in point.

Yet true to form, even as the vote of no-confidence approaches, the PML-Q has been flirting with the opposition right to the end. "They have the required numbers," Parvez Elahi winked the other day, "even more than what one can imagine." He was far more critical of his coalition partner, saying "the work carried out on the government's behalf never allowed it to learn things for itself."

"The child will learn to walk only when you put him down," he said metaphorically. "Would you keep on changing nappies all his life?"

More than ever, he seems ready to jump, and he’s been jumping for a long time. It was, after all, a much younger Mr Elahi that coauthored another vote of no-confidence as early as 1986 against a 37-year-old chief minister of Punjab called Mian Nawaz Sharif. With the Chaudhrys' rebels closing in, Mian sahib was rescued by General Zia in the nick of time. "When the motion was being prepared, but had not yet been moved, Zia said no conspiracy would succeed against Nawaz Sharif," Nawaz remembered later with gratitude. "His words made those people lose hope. All their efforts ultimately went up in smoke."

But the Chaudhrys remained a reality. In the years since, the PML-Q has evolved through each stage of influence-peddling — derided as the king’s party under the generals, the party became kingmaker after aligning with the PTI. It’s now grasping for the kingship itself in Punjab — the office of chief minister.

Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to PML-Q leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Parvez Elahi during a meeting earlier this month .— White Star/ File
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to PML-Q leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Parvez Elahi during a meeting earlier this month .— White Star/ File

Per the talking heads, they’ll go with whichever party — in government or outside it — hands them Lahore. As a visibly exasperated Sheikh Rashid said, "I’m not like those people with five [seats], who commit blackmail for the province’s chief ministry." Be that as it may, the Sheikh of Lal Haveli only ever had one seat to put up. (He has since denied hitting out at the Chaudhrys.)

Less committed are the PTI’s other allies. The MQM, a career expert at extorting weak coalitions — and at extortion in general — has been exuding long, dramatic sighs for months. The party with the un-improvable name, BAP, took its cue in February — it threatened to quit, while asking for more cabinet spots in the same breath — it has already begun backing out of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As for the GDA, the alliance of feudal lords notable only for not being the PPP, it’s been shuffling some inches closer to the treasury benches.

Worse by some degrees is the picture presented by the PTI’s actual MNAs, many of whom arrived as part of the electables wave of 2018. Motivated less by reform and more by deep-fried patronage, the electables fought to win, and winning meant little without access to state resources.

The rest was predetermined. As soon as the PTI started tottering, the forever-incumbents dashed for the gates. Some would have jumped anyway, just as they had deserted their own parties to join the tabdeeli government. Others were resentful from before, as when the inquiry into the sugar cartel came down hard on the party’s former financiers, and forced them to prop up a pressure group of dissidents (if for the sole purpose of keeping the FIA’s handcuffs away). Yet others saw themselves as the rightful heirs to Takht-e-Lahore, but had to stomach corruption cases, as well as the reign of Usman Buzdar.

And the choice of Mr Buzdar merits some space of its own.

Buzdar of Punjab

Even by Pakistan’s standards, the appointment of Usman Buzdar as the chief minister of Punjab sparked all kinds of rumours. As a little-known gent late of the PML-N and the PML-Q, who had joined the PTI as late as 2018’s election season, a Buzdar ministry came as a bolt from the blue.

Once the initial shock wore off, it was whispered that he was a placeholder for when the actual chief minister emerged; or he was a consensus candidate in a badly divided party; or he was a dark horse pick that would prove all the naysayers wrong.

When it became apparent that none of the above was true, the reality of Usman Buzdar started assuming a weight of its own. In time, that weight would begin pressing down on the PTI’s electoral prospects in Punjab, chip away at the party’s support from the establishment, and encourage (though not cause) the vote of no-confidence at the centre.

Read: The problem with Buzdar

Over the next three years, not a single credible explanation would be advanced by the ruling party as to why this man was handed the fates of a hundred million people. In the first of perhaps dozens of endorsements, Mr Khan tweeted on 18 August 2018, "I have done my due diligence over the past two weeks and have found him to be an honest man. He has integrity and stands by my vision and ideology of Naya Pakistan."

There was also the common man pitch: "Usman comes from one of the most backward areas of Punjab," he said, "the tribal area of DG Khan Division … he understands the problems of the people of neglected areas and will be able to ensure their uplift as CM." Here was Wasim Akram Plus via Taunsa Sharif, a talent for the ages.

So it was that a first-time MPA was elected chief minister, though the same could be said, perhaps, for Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1985. Yet it was for that same reason that Naya Punjab’s choice was so crucial — whoever was to be handed the reins to Lahore, the Sharifs’ generational stronghold, had to have brains and heart to try and tilt it away.

But that was also a double-edged sword — for any prime minister up in the hills, a rising leader in Punjab had always been cause for the jitters . No one familiar with Nawaz Sharif, Parvez Elahi, Manzoor Wattoo, or Mustafa Khar would argue otherwise. For the past two decades, the only man Mian sahib could trust in the same post was his own brother. By contrast, the only government Mr Buzdar could threaten was his own.

In the beginning though, criticism of the new chief minister seemed shallow, focusing less on any actual metrics and more on his damp persona. In the opposition’s hands, Mr Buzdar was painted as a sack of potatoes turned sentient. PTI voices shrugged this off — there was a class element to the snobbery. Or they pointed to his predecessor, wading through flooded streets in gumboots. Buzdar wasn’t a finger-wagging mini-Mussolini, they said; he was a man of the people.

As time went on, however, the man of the people would toddle from one car-wreck to the next. He was soon hauled up by the Supreme Court on allegations of transferring Pakpattan’s District Police Officer in the middle of the night, at the behest of a buddy called Ahsan Gujjar. The inquiry report, ordered by the Supreme Court, found that the DPO’s transfer orders flowed directly from the chief minister’s office. The case concluded only after the unconditional apologies of Mr Buzdar, Mr Gujjar, and the Inspector General of Police.

Then came the overall malaise — seven police chiefs were changed over three years, one of which prompted the resignation of Nasir Khan Durrani. Mr Durrani had shepherded the PTI’s celebrated police reforms in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and was brought to Lahore for the same purpose. "If the experiment of unity in command could be successful in KP, then it is also possible to replicate it in Punjab, he would say some months before he passed away. It didn’t happen, and the much-reviled thaana culture stayed where it was.

And when the sugar scandal hit, the commission of inquiry held Mr Buzdar responsible for authorising a whopping Rs2.9 billion subsidy, which it deemed unjustified. Per the report, "The Chief Minister Punjab pleaded his case that the subsidy was granted by the Cabinet and it was a collective decision. However, keeping in view the minutes of the meeting dated 06-12-2018, which the CM Punjab claims to have forgotten, clearly indicates otherwise." News reports would point to three separate summaries moved by Punjab’s finance secretary opposing the subsidy, all of which escaped the executive’s attention.

Nor did the ‘honest man’ image endure — soon enough, NAB got into the picture. Cases opened up against the chief minister on a variety of allegations, from accepting graft over liquor licenses to illegal land allotments, while his principal secretary came under investigation for assets beyond means.

Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar visits Tehsil Headquarter Hospital, Dipalpur to review arrangements at isolation wards for coronavirus patients in April 2020. — File
Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar visits Tehsil Headquarter Hospital, Dipalpur to review arrangements at isolation wards for coronavirus patients in April 2020. — File

Eventually, the consensus that Mr Buzdar was a hapless choice had settled in the province, to the extent that the Punjab government’s leading achievements — like the rollout of the Sehat card, or the fightback against the coronavirus pandemic — were attributed to provincial ministers and bureaucrats, rather than their boss. In the same vein, Mr Buzdar’s actual contributions, such as reprioritising development in South Punjab, were whistled away.

Most important, unlike other ex-Leaguers, Mr Buzdar proved a complete loss at bridge-building. It took the Chaudhrys to stitch up the PTI’s Senate seats from Punjab, and it was the Chaudhrys again whose numbers took on outsized importance in light of their doddering chief minister.

Today, the PTI dissidents, a forward bloc by any other name, refuse to accept anything less than his removal. Whatever their motives, the fact remains that the galaxy of requests to drop Mr Buzdar — whether from his own party, the bureaucracy, the establishment, the voters, or the proverbial man in the street — went unheard by the prime minister.

In another universe, a solid ministry in the land of the five rivers would have acted as Mr Khan’s finest defence. Instead, Usman Buzdar opened up another battlefront in the larger struggle over no-confidence; his appointment the single most scorned personnel choice of the PTI’s three years in power.

Read: PML-N, Tareen group agree on CM Buzdar ouster

Seeking ‘support’

That Pakistan is only a quasi-democracy, even under democrats, is an old trope. Well before Imran Khan took power, a handful of commentators had begun using the latest variant — ‘hybrid regime’ — as a buzzword that fit between democracy and dictatorship.

This was part of a longer-running theme, made popular by Western academics. The country was dubbed a hybrid regime by Katherine Adeney in Democratization in 2015, by Philip Oldenburg in Commonwealth and Comparative Politics in 2017, and by that beloved mouthpiece of European billionaires everywhere, The Economist, in early 2018. At all such times, the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi were in power (by way of context, Modi’s India, at the height of its Hindutva project, merited a ‘flawed democracy’ tag on the same index).

The momentum picked up after Mr Khan took over, as the term ‘hybrid regime’ took on wider currency among the prime minister’s critics at home, and even among a few of his supporters. Yet implicit in this — locals repeating an awkward bit of Western pol sci — was that Mr Khan had somehow greater or more sophisticated support from the establishment than the civilians of old.

This rather loopy diagnosis ran up against the past six decades of Pakistan’s history, where new-fangled civilians were supported, then tolerated, and then opposed by the establishment. To label the PTI government as some sort of outlier was as inaccurate as it was ahistorical.

Smokers' Corner: Hybrid regimes and their discontents

The same held true even for the country’s most ‘civilian’ periods: here’s The New York Times at the dawn of the Bhutto era, on 29 December 1971: "Although he played an important role in the ouster of Gen Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan from the Presidency on Dec 20, Air Marshal Rahim Khan and his colleagues chose to eschew a military coup, and the air force commander has elected to remain in the background. The former Royal Indian Air Force pilot shares military power under the Presidency of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with Lt Gen Gul Hassan Khan, who holds the title of Acting Commander in Chief of the Army."

Mr Bhutto ran a martial law administration which then segued into a years-long emergency, before again imposing martial law, and then ultimately being overthrown by the same generals he sent into Lahore, Karachi, and Hyderabad.

Over a decade later, when generals Aslam Beg and Asad Durrani handed out money bags to Mian Nawaz Sharif’s IJI during the 1990 polls, it would be censured by the Supreme Court. Of course, the same insufferable Aslam Beg was once praised for giving democracy a chance, much like Gul Hasan and Rahim Khan. (The latter two were sacked soon after, while Mr Beg was denied an extension.)

By 2017, the trend of the two now-opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, to cry interference when their fortunes were on the slide, and then praise the establishment’s neutrality whenever they were in the upswing, had become little more than a piece of rhetoric — the opposition would play ball with the deep state when it favoured them, and call for civilian supremacy when it didn’t.

PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif, PPP co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari and PDM chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman gesture during a press conference after submitting the no-trust motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 8. — AFP/ File
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif, PPP co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari and PDM chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman gesture during a press conference after submitting the no-trust motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 8. — AFP/ File

This was most evident with the rise, fall, and return of the PDM. Two years ago, this contributor wrote in these pages, "The Pakistan Democratic Movement is neither democratic nor a movement. It’s an inter-elite skirmish over relevance, closure of NAB cases, and closeness to the establishment. For all his talk of mujhay kyun nikala, Mian sahib loved helping nikalufy prime ministers Junejo, Benazir, Benazir again, and Yusuf Raza. When a man does something four times, odds are he can do it a fifth.’

That fifth try seems to have presented itself, and Mian sahib seems intent so far on going for it. He’s not told us yet whether he’s motivated by civilian supremacy, or by the postings of lieutenant generals.

As for the government he seeks to remove, the PTI didn’t take too long to pick up on the same throat-clearing from the traditional parties. "In 2013’s election, the judiciary was with [Nawaz Sharif], and so was the military," Mr Khan said a while ago. "His problem today is that the judiciary has become neutral, and so has the military." As recent rallies attest, the premier’s views on neutrality have since evolved. "Only animals are neutral," he said in Balambat.

There’s been another sort of evolution as well, as the PTI in power steers around all of its own campaign promises relating to the shadowlands. Mr Khan had vowed to put a stop to missing persons, as well as ensuring the Asghar Khan case was brought to its logical end. Neither happened.

He had also said that General Musharraf shouldn’t be allowed to escape trial — his condemnations of emergency rule played loud and long on the airwaves. Once in office, however, the PTI government’s lawyers fought tooth and nail to reverse the special court’s treason verdict.

Regardless, the PTI’s party faithful have been quick to cite the advantages of same-page-ism as an antidote to instability — the competence of the NCOC, at the height of the pandemic, was one such example, as was the air battle of February 27, 2019, when Pakistan’s diplomatic skill melded well with its defensive readiness, downing India’s intruding warplanes, and deterring Modi.

But as of late last October, there was a chill in the air — an impasse over the appointment of the new intelligence chief dragged on for three weeks at the Prime Minister’s Office. Day after day, the press would ask about the notification, and each day, Islamabad would dodge the question.

While the DG ISI is an appointee of the prime minister, he has at all times answered to the army chief. Attempts to go over and above that equation by picking their own loyalists ended in tears for both Benazir Bhutto (who chose the clueless Shamsur Rehman Kallue) and Nawaz Sharif (who chose the doomed Ziauddin Butt).

By the time the summary was issued at last, the ‘same page’ had started tearing — though there came a series of fevered statements from Islamabad that all was well, the signs said otherwise.

And just like that, it was open season on the centre. On March 8, the opposition submitted its resolution for a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister. The resolution cited spiralling inflation and mass distress among the people, besides kicking off the countdown to the actual vote in the assembly.

At the joint press conference later that day, Asif Ali Zardari, flanked by Shehbaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, told the press, "We friends in the opposition all thought: it’s now or never."

The PPP co-chair was his usual, unfazed self: "We will, God willing, free Pakistan, you, and your upcoming generations, from this difficulty," he said. "Jiye Bhutto."

That neither gent could actually explain why ‘now’ was different from before, or why the economic crisis — as prevalent, if not worse, in 2020 and 2021 — had become unbearable, or why Notification-gate had been the sole difference in the interim, was hardly unexpected. There would be a vote, and that was that.

Muddying the law

To remove a prime minister via the assembly, the law of the land is clear. In the first stage, a resolution seeking a vote of no-confidence is submitted under Article 95(1) of the Constitution; the opposition did just that on March 8.

Since the parliament isn’t in session, the opposition has also moved to summon it. It’s submitted a requisition (a fancy word for an official request) under Article 54(3). Once a requisition is received, the Constitution says that "the Speaker shall summon the National Assembly to meet, at such time and place as he thinks fit, within fourteen days of the receipt of the requisition."

This means two things: that the Speaker has until March 22 to summon the assembly, and also — courtesy the word ‘shall’ — that he is bound to do so. Once the assembly opens, Article 95(3) provides that the no-confidence resolution shall not be voted upon before the expiration of three days, and less than seven days.

We’re thus looking at a window of voting between March 25 and March 29; hence PTI leaders announcing that the vote shall be held after the party’s rally on March 27, in the two days remaining.

Explainer: How does a no-confidence motion work?

For the resolution to pass, the opposition needs a simple majority of the total membership in the House — the magic number is 172. If the prime minister loses the support of any two coalition partners — that is, any buddy comedy of BAP, MQM, GDA or the PML-Q — it could mean lights out for a PTI dispensation, to say nothing of a revolt from within.

Per the rules of procedure, the vote itself is in the open — members that want the prime minister gone will rise and file out of an entrance while their numbers are counted; those that support him are free to stay in their seats. Should the treasury benches decide to turn on their prime minister, an open vote will make for a series of public betrayals.

If the vote fails, everyone remains where they are. If the vote succeeds, the prime minister will go down with his whole cabinet. As astute legal eagle Moiz Jaferii has explained, the cabinet is an extension of the premier that picked it; it’s also why it stood automatically dissolved when Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court after the Panama verdict. Once the premier is voted out, the next thing the Assembly must do, "to the exclusion of any other business," is elect a new prime minister. Until they do so, the country will be run by the president, who will have stepped into the cabinet’s void.

While simple enough, the ruling party’s legal brains have since misread another law, Article 63A — disqualification for defecting parliamentarians — as an escape hatch; they claim the Speaker can bar anyone from crossing the floor, and thereby kill the vote.

This is entirely wrong — 63-A neither bars members from voting, nor disqualifies them in advance. It acts as punishment: a member is disqualified after voting against the party, and not before. To pretend otherwise would be sentencing a man for a crime he’s yet to commit.

A holdover from Mian sahib’s 14th Amendment — one that made its way into the 18th — Article 63A is bad law; the result of a Faustian bargain between the same parties the PTI rails against. But its process for disqualifying defectors is long and convoluted, and winds through the House, the ECP, and the Supreme Court in appeal. The Speaker has no room for knocking out members in advance.

In fact, 63A has always acted as a deterrent. If our lawmakers wanted, they could have just slapped a blanket ban on floor-crossing, yet they’ve allowed members to vote differently. Freedom of expression, perhaps, just not after expression.

Read: No-trust move — Can the NA speaker dismiss votes of dissident lawmakers?

Final act

As the country heads for climax, things look to get worse before they get better. Most distressing is the announcement of dual rallies in the capital in the last week of the month — the prime minister has called one on March 27 at D-Chowk — the very same Waterloo that hosted the 2014 dharna — after which Maulana Fazl announced a countermarch on March 25.

Already, the Supreme Court Bar Association has taken this future collision to the apex court, praying that parliamentarians be allowed to cast their vote in the assembly. ‘It is evident from the political history of our country,’ reads the petition, ‘that preventing the constitutional process from taking its course has produced dire consequence for democracy and rule of law.’

But the onus of preserving the rule of law falls squarely on the centre. To announce a power show in the middle of a vote like this is to be consciously risking violence. It is the prime minister’s responsibility to call off a potential disaster, and Maulana Fazl’s to follow suit with his yellow-shirts.

Yet if words are any indicator, the premier is saying whatever he can to ramp up the temperature. Ever since the opposition submitted its resolution, Mr Khan has been barnstorming the country. While the usual stump speeches have followed, the jibes are anything but routine — Mr Khan has called Shehbaz a boot-polishing ‘showbaz’, and Mr Zardari a murderer and a thief. He’s told a crowd in Lower Dir that General Bajwa asked him not to call Fazlur Rehman ‘Diesel’, but that the people had chosen that name for the maulana anyway.

Little of this is unprecedented for the prime minister. And whatever the opposition parties might say, little of this is unprecedented for them either. ZA Bhutto referred to the millions of Bengalis he betrayed to the Yahya junta as ‘sons of swine’. Mian sahib would call PPP leaders dog-washing puppets; his younger brother promised to drag them in the streets.

And in this latest fistfight, the new opposition is the same as the old opposition. As the dissidents from PTI-Sugar somehow tumble down the chimney of Sindh House, taking refuge, PPP leaders shrug their shoulders — MNAs are staying there for their own good.

Besides, if Islamabad wasn’t above sending the police in after Fazl’s yellow soldiers in the Parliament Lodges, it wouldn’t be above arresting its own Trojans from Sindh House. To Mr Khan, however, Sindh House is a den of weak wills and bags of cash — this is how whole governments are stolen.

Only, Pakistan has seen this film before. It was Balochistan House three decades ago, where Aslam Beg shook down Mehran Bank boss Yunus Habib for gazillions of rupees. Or the year before that, when it was the lovely hilltop resorts of Dilkusha and Brightland in Murree, where Mian sahib stuffed 60 MNAs before the no-confidence move against Benazir. (Some escaped: MNA Khurshid Cheema famously dashed to the PPP’s benches in the assembly, screaming ‘bachao, bachao,’ and swearing his life had been threatened.)

But the past’s mistakes are also where they should stay. As of 2008, Pakistan has wheezed its way to the restoration of a parliamentary democracy, or at least some semblance of it. A civilian government is in its third consecutive iteration. Federalism is considered a good thing.

The cornerstone of all three is a peaceful transition of power. A vote of no-confidence may well be one such transition; it’s provided for in the law and Constitution — a five-year term is, after all, subject to the parliament’s pleasure. Yet it must also be said that not a single one of Pakistan’s prime ministers have served out their complete term, and the latest effort to keep that up has proven laughably hollow.

Mr Khan’s critics point to skyrocketing prices, systematic censorship, Usman Buzdar, recklessness with religion, aggrieved foreign friends, the return of political victimisation, and an economy in hock to the IMF.

His admirers speak of the beginnings of universal healthcare, expanding the social welfare net, a near-miraculous recovery from the pandemic, the February 27 deterrence, non-alignment abroad, refusing drone strikes at home, and going after the corrupt.

As anyone can tell, little of the above is in play. If the prime minister stays, it won’t be because of the merits of his tenure, and if he goes, it won’t be because of his failings either. Wrote columnist Arifa Noor, "The government admits honestly that if they can sort out their problems, whatever they may be, with the powers that be, then the government will survive and the opposition too is clear that their move will succeed if the winds don’t change … [Allied parties] concede that these days they are not getting any phone calls. It is hard not to make the connection between indecision and the absence of a call."

For Ms Noor, the question that arose was obvious. "There is no belief in having any agency. How can anyone watching this unfold not see this? Or realise the complete lack of any higher principle at work?’

But a higher principle requires just a little bit of faith in the system. With a clean transition only one and a half year away, the idea that a prime minister can be voted in by the people — and then thrown out by those same people after five years — needn’t be so revolutionary.

Then again, per another saying attributed to Mao (this one wrongly), "History is a symptom of our disease."

As thousands of partisans are ordered into the streets to square off against each other, as the gloved hand hovers near the phone, as men like the Chaudhrys get to decide governments, as the prime minister attempts to block the same parliament he was meant to lead, as the opposition continues to perpetuate its gormless children, one wonders when this great country will stop making history.