RED ZONE FILES: Game, set… match?

Published March 17, 2022
A combination photo of Prime Minister Imran Khan, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif and PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari. — PM's Facebook page/DawnNewsTV/AFP/DawnNewsTV
A combination photo of Prime Minister Imran Khan, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif and PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari. — PM's Facebook page/DawnNewsTV/AFP/DawnNewsTV

The PTI government is trying to dig its way out of a political hole.

As events unfold at breakneck speed in the federal capital, the fog of manufactured confusion is slowly giving way to the light of orchestrated clarity. Randomly scattered dots are connecting in a quasi-organic pattern to tell a story that now appears to have a coherent start and an expected ending. The vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan is merely one chapter in this latest political saga unfolding in Pakistan.

And oh boy, is it a page-turner.

The interview of PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, conducted so ably by Meher Bokhari on Hum News, reveals what most informed Red Zone insiders knew already and were whispering quietly to each other these past two weeks: the dithering of the government’s allies in public was in direct contrast to the clarity of their leanings in private. This clarity is not hidden from key people in the PTI government, and it brings them little joy. In fact, little else does, as the clock goes tick tock tick tock towards the final battle of Waterloo on March 28. The fact that both sides believe themselves to be the Duke of Wellington and not Napoleon Bonaparte does little to change the reality that one side is increasingly running out of numbers, options, patience, and space to maneuver.

At play is a gradual re-shaping and re-formatting of the country’s political landscape. This re-shaping started unfolding many months ago and is now revealing its contours in the shape of heightened political cross-pollination in Islamabad and Lahore. The larger architecture of this new reality is spread across the vastness of time which is far longer than the one being consumed by the vote of no-confidence, or its immediate aftermath. What many have failed to grasp is that this no-confidence vote is one event within a larger process, and this process will keep gaining momentum over the coming weeks and months. All plans can go awry, so there’s that of course, but what we are seeing now – and what was fairly evident from Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s interview – is that the outcome of the present crises is not as suspenseful as it appears.

This outcome is premised, as of today, on certain negotiated specifics. One such specificity pertains to PML-N’s acceptance – albeit reluctantly – to make Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi the chief minister of Punjab. According to Red Zone insiders, the offer has been accepted and PML-Q has made its decision to join the opposition camp. This settlement is also not confined merely to the vote of no-confidence but is part of the process that envisages the arrangement till the next general elections and then beyond them. The PML-N and PML-Q settlement has not been an easy one, according to those involved in the negotiations. It faced resistance from the inside on both ends. This is why the initial contact between the two sides – Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to the home of the Chaudhries – did not bear immediate fruit.

That is when former president Asif Zardari stepped in to push the Chaudhries and the Sharifs closer and provided some guarantees that were needed by both sides. As per the settlement, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi will lead a coalition government in Punjab with PML-N as the largest party within the coalition, and also in the new cabinet. In return PML-Q’s five MNAs will join the opposition in the vote of no-confidence in the centre.

The MQM is also on board with the opposition. For weeks now it has been holding quiet negotiations with key opposition leaders away from the glare of cameras. Their set of demands have also now been met, as per latest reports. In a repeat of the Punjab arrangement, the PML-N leadership is the guarantor for the MQM-PPP understanding in Sindh. Both the PML-Q and MQM have driven hard bargains. They have been able to do so not just because the opposition desperately needed their votes, but also because they were neither stopped from speaking to the opposition nor pushed into their camp.

The Baluchistan Awami Party BAP has followed a similar trajectory. It started talking to the opposition weeks ago through clandestine meetings. The party suffers from internal friction – Chairman Senate Sadiq Sanjrani and his group within BAP were not part of these secret talks – but the final agreement will now likely see three or four among the five BAP MNAs voting with the opposition. Like the PML-Q and the MQM, BAP insiders also say they were neither stopped from engaging with the opposition nor forced into it. The neutrality of the establishment, by all accounts, is holding.

So what really went wrong for the PTI?

Here’s where the entire saga gets a bit dense. It is by now hardly a secret that PTI had outsourced most of its strategically important political management to some powerful people. Often time even tactical work was parceled out in a similar fashion. Red Zone insiders cite an incident as an example. When the (now infamous) Daska by-election was approaching, the PTI leadership asked for a comprehensive report on all ticket aspirants so it could make an informed choice. Much work went into compiling this report, including detailed background checks and interviews of all the contenders for the PTI ticket. Finally the party leadership called a meeting to decide on the matter and all the contenders were also asked to attend. Then something strange happened.

Even before the report could be presented, some key party leaders announced that they had a name recommended for the ticket and he would get it. When someone pointed out that the person being named did not even have a vote bank in this constituency (his was the adjacent one), they called off the meeting, reconvened the next day, and said fine one more name has been cleared, so he gets the ticket. Which he did. The report was shelved. The rest is history.

The controversy over the appointment of the DG ISI last year was a seminal point in this saga. As a result, the relationship began to sour and bleed drop by drop. Timely efforts may have stitched up the wound, say insiders, but instead the rupture kept widening. Red Zone leaks aplenty. When people badmouth other people, word gets out. Yet this wasn’t just a clash of egos but an ever widening cleavage that started to trigger institutional angst. And mistrust.

Matters kept getting worse. A week ago some ruling party MNAs met a very important political leader in the federal capital. In that meeting some very harsh words were used against some other important people. Again. Word travelled out. Again. Instead of being healed, the wound had gone bad. Now the entire body was breaking into fever.

Such incidents have aggravated what was already becoming a strained relationship. One key irritant is the fate of Punjab CM Usman Buzdar. Red Zone insiders say powerful stakeholders have repeatedly asked for his replacement. The main gripe is that every time assurances have been given, the opposite has taken place. The latest was just a short while back. It was a meeting in Lahore and the PTI leadership agreed to his replacement. In fact, things had becoming so bad that in a meeting with the Punjab PTI ministers and other key people, Prime Minister Imran Khan was told by a provincial minister from PTI that the PM was the only person in the party who still supported the CM. And yet, Buzdar survives.

It takes two to tango. With the music becoming discordant, one partner decided to step off the dance floor thus enabling the opposition to occupy the space. Now the ruling party runs a grave risk of being out-manned, out-played and out-smarted. It has responded in a manner that is now creating a quasi-constitutional crises.

So what could happen now?

Insiders say if the opposition insists on going ahead with the vote of no-confidence, there is little to stop it from doing so. Even if its MNAs cannot access the parliament on the day of the vote, the opposition is all set to seek relief from the superior courts. The relief will be forthcoming because obstructing a laid down constitutional procedure is a violation of such grave nature that it is unlikely to go unnoticed by the courts.

That sad, could there be a compromise in the shape of a commitment to early elections by the government in return for the opposition withdrawing the vote of no-confidence? Not interested, says the opposition today. And tomorrow?

The final chapter of this saga is still being written.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2022

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