Political entanglements may once again be headed to the courts.
Speaker Asad Qaiser has summoned the crucial session of the National Assembly on Friday, March 25, which is three days longer than the Constitution has stipulated once the required number of parliamentarians have requisitioned a session. This order further complicates a situation that is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Here’s where things stand today and what they could portend in the coming days:
The PTI government is doing legal gymnastics with constitutional procedures, but there is no way around the vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan. The only way that the PM can retain his job is if the opposition fails to muster a strength of 172 in the lower house during the vote. Or if for some reason, the opposition withdraws the motion. There is no other way out for the PM and his cabinet. Legal experts say the speaker may attempt to delay the process and push the vote forward, and this may ultimately end up in courts, but the vote will need to take place one way or another. What matters is the numbers game. Everything else is a side show.
The courts may in fact become the battleground before the real battle on the floor of the National Assembly. If both the government and the opposition head to the Supreme Court with their petitions, the court may need to pronounce on the following: (i) if Article 63 of the constitution allows the party head to stop errant members of his party from voting on the confidence motion (ii) if the disqualification under Article 3 for members indulging in floor crossing can be a lifetime ban (iii) if the speaker can delay summoning of the National Assembly for more than the two-week limit spelt out in the Constitution and whether he can somehow delay the moving of the motion for the vote of no confidence.
These issues will be addressed by the Supreme Court this week and a lot will depend on how long the SC takes to pronounce a decision. According to legal experts, if the SC reaffirms the obvious interpretation of the constitutional procedure for the vote of no-confidence, then the government will have no other option but to fight the numbers game, which it appears to be losing at this stage.
The planned rallies by the government and the opposition on Sunday, March 27, have added an explosive element to the volatile situation. Inside the Red Zone, there is a genuine fear that if these rallies are allowed to take place as scheduled, then there is a danger of violence breaking out. Now, imagine the real danger: when such violence ensues between a sitting government and its opponents, what does the police do? And if the police cannot handle such a scenario, the only option is what Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid has been referring to in his speeches: handing over security responsibility to the armed forces.
There is no need for the situation to deteriorate to such a level. But it is being dragged towards such an outcome by the government itself. What is otherwise a straightforward constitutional procedure is being weaponised by the use of mobs and threats. These in turn are being used to fuel a new narrative that focuses on accusations of horse-trading as a means to undermine a democratic process. What is being deliberately ignored is that such allegations need to be proved in a court of law for any action to be taken. They are handy for political sloganeering but cannot be used to counter what is purely a constitutional and legal process.
The government allies have stitched up their agreements with the opposition but according to Red Zone insiders, they will hold back formal announcements till after the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting. Despite the ups and downs of this week and the increase in political temperatures, the PML-Q, MQM and BAP are still locked into an understanding whose final details are being stitched up. One parliamentarian from the allied parties said their decision was intact as per the understanding reached.
One key challenge for the opposition is to keep its members safe, secure and available in Islamabad. This has led to daily congregations for dinners where the leaders keep an eye on their flock while also ensuring that none are under any pressure or facing threats. Opposition insiders say this is harder than it sounds as these elected members have a strong gravitational pull from their constituencies and yet cannot be allowed to disperse from Islamabad at a crucial time when every single vote counts.
While it is clear that the vote of no confidence will take place in a matter of days, there remain some uncertainties that are becoming a source of concern: (i) if PM Khan is on a collision course – as is evident from his speeches, including the one on Sunday – is there a way the system can be saved from instability without the opposition ceding space to him? (ii) Will the establishment be forced to intervene if matters start to spin out of control (iii) what will happen if the PM decides to use the ‘nuclear option’ of firing a senior official and appointing a new one in his place?
Some senior government officials have started to acknowledge in private that their prospects of surviving this challenge from the opposition are slim. They are now also admitting that the root cause of the dire situation they find themselves in today is the unnecessary and avoidable confrontation with the establishment.
Yet they are now locked into a predicament that can only reinforce itself if the PTI government falls. The narrative being stitched together by the party leadership will likely further accentuate the source of the conflict and could trigger greater political instability.
The Red Zone is under stress. The coming ten days will determine if it can sustain it.
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2022