Hobson’s choice for PML-N

Published December 6, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

NOW that it is all quiet on the you-know-what front, attention is focused on the political chessboard. Imran Khan is in no mood to relent and is now trying to force elections in the two provinces he rules by threatening resignations and dissolutions. Will he or won’t he? And if he does so, will his band of MPAs and half a Chaudhry clan follow suit? The answers vary depending on whom you ask.

At the other end are the government allies who face as many struggles as Khan himself. But with a vast difference. Khan has time on his side; even if he took a short break from politics and interviews, it would make little difference to his position. The day he returns, he would still be the man dominating KP and on the rise in Punjab.

The same cannot be said of the ruling alliance, especially the PML-N, which faces challenges that allow no break or respite. Or perhaps, it can be said that the challenges will go from bad to worse whether Shehbaz Sharif and his cabinet work seven days a week or take a month off.

In other words, Khan can afford to make mistakes, lose momentum and take U-turns, but the little he does can turn into a headache for those being judged on inflation, taxation, gas and electricity.

With time on his side, even if Khan took a short break from politics, he would still retain his position.

Against this context, how would those in power view the PTI’s demand for elections?

There is no one answer if the government’s views and answers in various talk shows are any guide. Some like Rana Sanullah appear to have mellowed a bit and seem to welcome a vague idea of negotiations, while others continue to offer nothing but hostility.

Hence, some insist there can be no early election; others want PTI to return to parliament, and then talk; and others still who hint darkly at delayed elections. In their view, the economy is such that there can be no elections. The PML-N needs more time to fix it all, now that they have begun the process.

And outside of government circles, there is a view that a slightly prolonged caretaker set-up might be given the task of fixing the economy before calling elections. (Has Hafeez Shaikh flown in for another meeting or two?)

Let us deal with the last option. From the point of view of the economy, it is perhaps the best option but politically not so. It is hard not to wonder who will legitimise this caretaker government and its decision-making.

None of the decisions which need to be made are easy ones; one can say they have backlash already built into them. And who will face the brunt of the public anger in case of a prolonged caretaker set-up?

It might go the way of those who have already had a bad year. Would they want to be in the public eye again? Especially as the political parties out in the cold will also try to use the moment to build up and win public support by blaming the tough decisions on whoever still remains in the power corridors?

So, for political reasons, a caretaker set-up might not be preferable to an early election which will throw up a political government to face the public anger. And a five-year term also allows for a government to make some difficult decisions, which a government facing an election cannot and will not. (Not everything can be blamed on Dar sahib’s view of economic matters.)

But who will call this election? The PDM’s aversion to elections is obvious. This is especially true of the PML-N, which, according to all accounts, has paid the heaviest price for the April decision of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (in electoral terms and not just the numbers in parliament).

The MQM would have fared no better had the PTI government continued and the PPP would still not have lost or gained much in Sindh either way. But if the April decision has stolen peaceful sleep, it is of Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

For the former is struggling in Punjab and the latter has lost whatever political gains he made in KP when PTI was on the downslide.

But more than the JUI-F, it is the PML-N which may have a say in the decision to provide a smooth path to a quick election. And perhaps it has the most to gain from resisting this. If elections are held sooner than scheduled and this decision is arrived at through talks, what will the PML-N have to offer during the election campaign, while Imran Khan will speak of his fracas with the establishment, his months-long campaign and his victory in getting the government to capitulate?

The best the PML-N can hope for is a replay of April — where the government is dismantled without its consent, as was Khan’s. For then, it can enter the election campaign as a wounded tiger, claiming injustice and reclaiming the ‘bayania’ or narrative which once made it popular and has now been appropriated wholly by the PTI.

Only some semblance of victimhood can give it a fighting chance. Without it, the party has had little success in the past seven months or so. That the party is interested in returning to its ‘revolutionary’ days of 2018-2021 is mentioned by party leaders.

And if anonymous accounts of the pressure on the PML-N during the nomination of the new army chief are to be believed, the events suggest the same; that the government resisted all pressure to make the choice independently, even if it meant going home.

So could one assume the PML-N will not negotiate its way to a new election date? I for one have no information but simply a guess. But even this comes with a caveat. For mere mortals can hardly assume to know what the gods may be up to.

After all, the vote of no-confidence made little sense to ordinary beings in April, and even back then, those on the chessboard moved differently. And this brings us to the third option — the PML-N insists on continuing, with the hope that the economy will improve, allowing it to call elections. What do we mortals know?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2022

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