SERIOUS economic challenges, mounting pressure from the recently ousted PTI government and lack of harmony among the major coalition parties are making it apparent every passing day that no homework was done for the post-Imran Khan political scenario, which has landed the PML-N-led ruling alliance in the dire straits it finds itself in today.

This is also evident from the fact that the prime minister and his core cabinet members rushed to London to seek advice from the ‘self-exiled’ PML-N elder, Nawaz Sharif, to desperately find a way out of the quagmire and whether to call early elections or not.

A key government ally, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has also issued a strong warning against any unilateral decision regarding fresh elections, while the party of Bhuttos believes the coalition can sail through the crises without incurring any political damage to any party, and go for elections only after completing the remaining tenure, during which they can carry out certain electoral and accountability reforms. The PPP also doesn’t want to let go of Sindh at any cost till August 2023, when the next elections are due.

The PML-N appears to be indecisive over the issue of elections, as some of its core members are convinced that completing the National Assembly’s tenure may cost it more than what the party is calculating today. Among those who have spoken their minds in favour of early polls to avoid bearing the brunt of the economic and governance mismanagement of the Imran Khan government are Maryam Nawaz, Ishaq Dar, Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Asif.

These leaders reportedly think their party could lose popularity in the days to come in the wake of unpopular decisions the ruling coalition must take because of the precarious economic situation, and Imran Khan will take advantage of it. Opting for early elections, they believe, will help the PML-N get a majority in the National Assembly. But the final decision rests with Nawaz Sharif.

The major allies — PML-N, PPP and JUI-F — appeared to be super excited when they ousted former premier Imran Khan through a no-confidence motion was decided. There was consensus among them that Mr Khan should be removed, come what may, while the remaining matters could be worked out later.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and core members of the PML-N dashed to London reportedly as the ruling coalition struggles to cut a fresh deal with the IMF and after a not-so-positive response from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to handle the economic crisis in the country, and get a clear direction from the top party man on how to move forward.

In a chat, a party leader privy to the Nawaz-Shehbaz meeting in the British capital told Dawn the two leaders discussed several issues ranging from the economic crisis, the budget for 2022-23, completing the government tenure or early elections, Nawaz’s return to Pakistan, handling of the PTI’s long march on Islamabad, possibility of arrest of Imran Khan and relations with the military establishment.

“The 10-member delegation, led by Shehbaz, was of the strong opinion that if his elder brother decided to call early elections then he must return and spearhead the party’s campaign,” the party insider said and added that one of the participants of the meeting told Nawaz: “You have to be among us in Pakistan whenever you decide the election should be held.”

The PTI’s recent rallies have caused serious concern among the PML-N ranks and its main leaders have left it to Nawaz to provide a counter strategy in consultation with the allies. Imran Khan has already announced a long march on the capital, the date for which he will announce after May 20.

Another PML-N leader from Punjab said much has been talked about the government preferring elections after the appointment of the new army chief, due in November, but contesting in the current set-up of the establishment — with whom the PML-N has mended its relations — might help it considering the establishment’s sour relations with the PTI.

Both the PML-N and PPP leadership have been saying that elections cannot be held without electoral and accountability reforms. But legal minds in the PML-N that Dawn spoke to say that “not more than two to four months” are required for such legislation, therefore, early polls are possible if the coalition government forms a consensus over it.

“The process to form parliamentary committees on electoral reforms in both houses — Senate and National Assembly — is under way and will be completed soon. Legislation will take two to three months after thorough deliberations by the committees,” a federal cabinet member told Dawn.

As for the return of Nawaz, he said: “The elder Sharif will have to surrender before the law on his return. Mr Nawaz has no intention to seek any benefit from the coalition government regarding suspension of his sentence through any executive order. He will surrender before the law whenever he returns to the country.”

The cabinet member further said the departments concerned were collecting evidence of the corruption and embezzlements committed by the Imran Khan government. “During the PTI government, the departments used to arrest opposition leaders first and start investigations later. The incumbent does not believe in victimisation and will ensure transparent accountability.”

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2022

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