We are into the final stretch and the situation is not looking peachy for the PTI government.
The ingredients flavouring this political brew are numerous: vocal dissidents, a partisan speaker, unrestrained spokespersons, active courts, and of course, the allies. Ah, those petulant and cryptic allies and their mind games — they could be the death of the government. Literally.
When all sides are claiming to hold trump cards, it is these allies that are, in fact, the real trump cards. So how will they play themselves?
The answer is giving sleepless nights to the ruling party and its supporters. The allies, PML-Q, MQM and BAP, stand between the government and the deep political abyss. They step back, and bam! It’s all over for Prime Minister Imran Khan and the merry men and women of his cabinet. But the pesky allies are being oh-so-elusive in their quest for self-advantage. It is almost as if, after years of being taken for granted, they are now relishing being wooed by all and sundry. See their smug expressions, hear their quasi-triumphant words and sense their barely-disguised glee; this is what it looks like when you can have your cake and eat it too.
For now, however, the cake sits pretty inside the political fridge. There will be a time to wolf it down — icing and all — but that time is not here yet. Not perhaps for another day. Or two. Or even three. What’s the rush when we know where we are heading, the allies seem to be asking the cosmos in general. Yes, there is this huge suspense about which side they will choose to support, and yes there is also their evasiveness wrapped in painfully delicious ambiguity — but…
Well, not really.
It is the Red Zone’s worst kept secret that the allies are all set to plunge the dagger in PTI’s back — and twist it. ‘Tis March and the season of daggers, in any case. This theatre will play itself out through various political, legal and judicial scenes and acts, but the final chapter is as good as written, say insiders. Now that the OIC meeting is over and done with, and the March 23 parade has also marched itself back into the barracks, the gladiatorial games are set to resume in the federal capital from today. The next seven days will make it crystal clear whether PM Khan stays in office or is forced to trade places with Mian Shehbaz Sharif.
The following five factors may help bring the next seven days in perspective:
1. The Speaker Asad Qaisar has summoned the National Assembly on Friday March 25, which means that technically the opposition can move the motion of the vote of no-confidence on this day. However, if the speaker does not allow this and adjourns the session for the following week, the timelines for the vote will get extended. There will be a legal tussle over this, but insiders say it is highly unlikely that the speaker can delay the vote for too long. It is now a matter of days, even if the days extend a few days beyond the expected date of March 28 for the vote.
2. The PTI government has started to come to terms with the fact that they now only have a slim chance of winning the vote. This reluctant acknowledgement of the reality is evidenced in their statements that are now focusing more on the March 27 public rally and less on the actual vote of no-confidence on the floor of the house. The realisation is also manifesting itself in the PTI’s lackluster outreach to the allies and its disgruntled members. The presidential reference to the Supreme Court is a last-ditch effort to be seen as doing something, anything, but it cannot compensate for nearly two years of the ruling party’s political mismanagement and maltreatment of many electables in the Punjab. Nor can it dilute the harsh impact of the overall misrule in the country’s largest province – misrule that is one of the root causes of the great unrest within the establishment, the allies and among a large group of PTI members.
3. The opposition is also mulling another scenario, according to Red Zone insiders. If the allies come on board, the opposition will easily cross the magic number of 172 without needing the vote of the PTI’s disgruntled members. The option under consideration is then not to have these disgruntled members cross the floor to vote. This way they do not get disqualified and remain with the PTI on the opposition benches but as a ‘forward bloc’. The final decision would be made after the announcement by the allies.
4. Faced with this grim situation, the PTI has the following options for the next few days before the vote: (i) De-notify a powerful office holder. This would trigger a massive controversy but does not really help the PTI avert the impending loss in the vote of no-confidence (ii) Remove Usman Buzdar as CM Punjab and appoint someone acceptable to the Tareen group and the establishment. This would not win back the PML-Q and therefore the numbers game in Islamabad will not be affected (iii) Offer early elections as a compromise solution. It is too late for this and the PM remains in a combative, no-compromise mode as reflected in his conversation with reporters on Wednesday (iv) Convert the March 27 party rally in Islamabad into the grand finale of his stint in power, unveil a new post-ouster narrative, spell out the plan of action for the coming weeks as the opposition, and galvanise the party base for a fresh countrywide aggressive campaign. This may be useful as a political strategy but it is an acknowledgement that the PM has run out of options to stay in power.
5. If the rallies of both PTI and the opposition take place on March 27, turbulence cannot be ruled out. However, even in the worst case scenario in which a serious law and order problem arises, it is unlikely that the vote of no-confidence would be swept aside. That constitutional procedure will have to move ahead and deliver an outcome.
Buckle up for the next seven days.
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2022