Moment of reckoning

Published March 28, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THE war of nerves between the government and opposition has escalated as the no-confidence move against Prime Minister Imran Khan approaches a climax. In the face of this challenge, the government’s response seems to have lurched between delay, legal moves, public rallies and volleys of abuse directed at opposition leaders. What’s more, a disingenuous message is being disseminated that the opposition’s no-confidence move is the product of an international conspiracy. This response shows a curious lack of understanding that the challenge is political and needs a political response. It also suggests that PTI leaders are still struggling to evolve a coherent political strategy to counter the opposition’s offensive.

Initially, it seemed the government didn’t take the opposition’s plan, unity or resolve seriously, deriding its leaders and declaring that their designs would never succeed. When it dawned that this was emerging as the most significant threat to his government in its fourth year in power, the prime minister reached out belatedly and half-heartedly to allies of his fragile coalition but offered little assurance that their grievances would be addressed. What shook the government was when cracks in the ruling party exploded in public with dissident after dissident surfacing to express misgivings with the prime minister’s governance. The number of party rebels swelled beyond the long-estranged members of the Jahangir Khan Tareen group.

Whichever way the vote goes a period of political volatility and instability lies ahead.

The ruling party’s panicky response involved egging on activists to take disruptive actions, including storming Sindh House, and hurling invective against dissidents with ministers indulging in name-calling. As the danger of a wider party rebellion grew, the government narrative began to change and entailed calls on dissidents to return to the fold with an ‘all-will-be-forgiven’ message. But the prime minister then shifted course saying he would rather lose office than engage in horse-trading. He characterised the battle with the opposition as one between good and evil, invoking religion to reinforce this, but betraying nervousness in casting those who chose to be neutral as “animals”. It was accompanied by the warning that party rebels would face the wrath of the people.

Editorial: PM Imran's speech indicates he has come to terms with the likely outcome of the no-trust move

This response did little to instill confidence in the ranks of the government or strengthen its position. Nor did angry and rambling speeches by its leaders, attacks on the media and press conferences by ministers known for making scurrilous remarks. In a nationwide public appeal, Khan called for a “historic” party rally in a “show of power” against those he dubbed as a “gang of thieves”. Without amplifying, he said the opposition is in for a rude shock on voting day. PTI trolls went into hyperdrive on social media lashing out at anyone who suggested the government could be ousted. Some obliquely criticised the establishment for being ‘neutral’ in the political battle. Orchestrating demonstrations by activists outside the homes of dissidents showed the ruling party’s desperation and resort to Trumpian-style intimidatory tactics.

Delay became another tactic used by the government with the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting being a convenient pretext to call the National Assembly session on March 25 — later than March 21, when the constitutionally prescribed 14-day period ended to convene a requisitioned meeting for a no-confidence vote. Even then, the motion was not allowed to be moved on that day. It is now scheduled for March 28. This cast the Speaker of the Assembly in an intensely partisan light with Asad Qaiser becoming the centre of controversy and the opposition accusing him of violating the Constitution.

In facing the most serious test of his tenure, Khan’s political skills, and those of his inner circle, have been found wanting. Rather than focus on the Assembly and mobilise support there to defeat the no-confidence motion by political means, the government filed a reference asking the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the Constitution’s Article 63-A. This so-called defection clause prescribes action against lawmakers who vote across party lines. The government argued that this should involve pre-emptive action against members to de-seat them, invalidate their vote and disqualify them for life. This effort to meet a political challenge by taking the matter out of parliament suggested the government’s lack of confidence in its majority. Resorting to the Supreme Court on a political issue followed a well-trodden path but didn’t detract from the fact that such matters are best resolved by political leaders and lawmakers themselves.

An influential voice of disagreement with the government’s interpretation came from the Supreme Court Bar Association. In its written submission to the court, it stated that the vote in the Assembly is an individual right and all members of the National Assembly enjoyed this right to be exercised freely as provided by the Constitution. It also said Article 63-A does not allow pre-emptive action against an MNA.

In the parliamentary showdown ahead, much hinges on the position the three coalition partners of the government take. Between them PML-Q, MQM and Balochistan Awami Party have 17 votes, enough to turn the tables on Khan if they decide to support the opposition’s move. This would also weaken the government’s narrative that money was used to buy the loyalties of party dissidents in horse-trading by the opposition. For their part, the allies seem to be bargaining hard with both sides while publicly voicing their grievances with the government for long ignoring their demands.

Although the odds seem stacked against the government, the vote could still go either way. It would be hazardous to predict the outcome of a vote still days away. What is certain is that delay has not helped to calm a politically charged situation made more volatile by rival rallies organised by both the government and opposition. There is much speculation about the “massive surprise” the prime minister promises to spring to turn the situation decisively in his favour. But whoever succeeds in the no-confidence vote a period of instability, even turbulence, lies ahead as the unfortunate political tradition in Pakistan is of losers rarely accepting defeat quietly or gracefully.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2022

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