I WROTE in January that our political chessboard was not at the checkmate but stalemate stage, which may break soon given the dicey national situation. It has reached checkmate stage now as the all-powerful umpire has gone neutral and the vote of no-confidence looms.
But so murky is our politics that even the correct act of going neutral may be politicised to cause the PTI regime’s demise. Perhaps the umpire is neutral as it knows it is strong enough to attain its aims even with neutrality by letting political minions do its dirty job. Neutrality may end quickly if this doesn’t happen. All this remains to be seen. But clearly PTI can’t survive unless thrown a lifeline again by the umpire. This depends on whether its rift with its ‘pampered’ kid is on quickly fixable issues, eg an extension. But if not, then PTI is done. Imran Khan’s reported aim to have a particular person in that key post is odd too, given that previous PMs who did so to secure their own job were soon fired by the favourite.
But PTI being PTI, all this will not stop it from trying to cling to power as long as it can even if that destroys the system. I wrote elsewhere three weeks ago when no signs had emerged yet that PTI would use every dirty trick to survive, including carrots, sticks, arrests and even abductions before and physically stopping and not counting its dissidents against the Constitution during voting. Most of these acts or their threat are there now. But even if it loses the vote, it may try more stratagems.
It is unclear if the president can ask an out-voted PM to continue in office until a new PM is elected and how soon voting for that must occur. PTI may use those gaps via its president and speaker to cling to power to create chaos. But none of this will help unless the umpire smiles. So the dharna threat may also be less for its dissidents and more for the umpire to favour it given the fear of chaos. PTI will lose either way. Even if it wins the vote, it will preside over the deep economic and political instability we will see until 2023 when it will face voters with its poor outcomes.
PTI will try to cling to power for as long as it can.
This instability we will face whoever wins. So some say a vote of no-confidence is not worth it. But for me the idea of an allegedly planted PM completing his term when fairly elected PMs were not allowed to do so is jarring. Also, even if PTI survives without help, it will be so badly burnt that its ability to deal with even daily issues will weaken further, let alone structural ones.
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With a new government in a five-year horizon, chances of better daily governance and structural reforms will be just a tiny bit higher, especially if the younger Sharif and Miftah Ismail rule rather than elder Sharif and Dar. While their overall performance was poor too, both PPP and PML-N had better overall economic and political outcomes after three years’ rule than PTI, with both PML-N and PPP better on tax collection, CPEC, game-changing legislative work, foreign ties and political freedoms and PPP also on external deficit, exports and remittances.
Shehbaz Sharif has suggested a five-year national regime without PTI if the latter loses the polls, chances of which are high. A national regime is an illusory idea that many think can solve our deep problems. It will just be an unwieldy coalition with lots of infighting and with no opposition, besides being complacent. However, without PTI it will not be a national but a broad-based regime with PTI as a strong opposition. This is what we need — a strong government and a strong opposition.
A government with a big majority may carry out political reforms and mend external ties damaged by PTI all around. But strong economic outcomes may elude even such a dispensation. The PPP and PML-N may have had a slightly better record on some economic aspects, but their overall economic outcomes were still poor.
Dare one hope for the reduced sway of the umpire? Shehbaz Sharif may be seen as more suitable, being more docile and efficient and less volatile than Imran Khan and able to win without any fixing. The role of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz will be crucial to balance him. It is critical that no party try to drag the umpire into the current crisis. All parties must also unite on refusing another extension.
But an angry PTI may become a vicious opposition bent on nixing the system. Thus, talks for early polls instead of a vote of no-confidence may lower tension and bypass the iffy PML-Q demand to let these dead assemblies with a dubious mandate finish their term, even if just in Punjab. Though not constitutionally mandated, our neutral interim regime system works best when national and provincial polls occur together. We need a fresh start, though with PML-N and PPP ruling even that may be insufficient to deal with the huge issues facing us.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2022