The Punjab Assembly has finally been dissolved and the KP Assembly is the next to go. The development has set in motion the process of elections in the two provinces. That brings a shaky coalition government at the centre, with its razor-thin majority in a truncated National Assembly, under further pressure. The options for the ruling alliance are running out. The endgame has begun.
It all started last week, with the PTI-PML-Q government winning the vote of confidence in the Punjab Assembly. It came as a shock to the PML-N, which till the last moment, was expecting some defections within the provincial government’s ranks. That did not happen. The PML-N lost the game of snakes and ladders. Another setback for the party came when the wily Punjab Chief Minister Parvez Elahi dissolved the provincial assembly against all expectations.
In this situation, the PML-N has been left with no other choice but to prepare for elections in the province that are to be held within three months. Imran Khan is also planning to take the battle to Islamabad. He has hinted at his party returning to the National Assembly and forcing the prime minister to take a vote of confidence.
While another U-turn, it would be yet a shrewd move by the former prime minister, given the coalition government’s vulnerabilities. Khan, belatedly, seems to have realised that abstention from the National Assembly could keep his party out of the process of forming the caretaker government for the coming general elections.
The lame-duck administration is unable to take the tough decisions needed.
But the return will not be that smooth as the PTI legislators in the House had submitted their resignations. It is apparent that Khan’s decision to go back to the Assembly is not to break the political deadlock and help draw up a mechanism for the elections but to bring down the PDM government.
Meanwhile, with some reports of possible defections in PML-N ranks, it could be a serious challenge for the prime minister to prove his majority. The Punjab debacle certainly has had a demoralising effect on the party though the leadership has put on a brave face. Even if the prime minister manages to scrape through the confidence vote, the rulers’ capacity to govern has been seriously hampered.
With two major provinces going into election mode and the entire focus on the coming provincial polls, it would make it extremely difficult for the centre to govern. It is unprecedented that elections would be taking place in only two provinces. An anomalous situation has been created that could have serious implications for the political and electoral process.
Neither side is willing to back down from their rigid position and agree on a mechanism for simultaneous elections in the provinces and the centre. While Imran Khan is adamant about bringing down the entire edifice, the ruling coalition is not willing to concede that it has already lost the game and to agree to early general elections.
With the economy in dire straits, a lame-duck administration that is unable to take the tough decisions needed will pull down the country further. The finance minister doesn’t want to discard his weird views on managing the economy. A top commercial banker recently warned of a systemic failure if urgent measures were not taken to address the current economic crisis.
The situation is becoming increasingly untenable for the beleaguered dispensation. Although PML-N leaders insist that the National Assembly would not be dissolved before the end of its term, the game is fast slipping out of its hands. The Sharifs’ party has already lost huge political capital and prolonging its rule could further erode its support base in its former stronghold in Punjab. The PDM government is presiding over the complete collapse of the economy which would have far-reaching political implications for the country and the democratic process.
This extremely bleak scenario also raises the question of whether the announcement of an election date could help stabilise the political situation. There is no indication yet of the rival parties coming together to bring down the political temperature and enter into a serious discussion on the schedule and modalities of elections. More importantly, what will happen to the economy in the meantime?
There is a lot of speculation about a prolonged interim government of technocrats to fix the economy before the country votes. It’s not the first time such an idea was floated. We have heard such suggestions in the past too. It may sound attractive to many who look for a solution to our myriad political and economic problems outside the political system. But there is no evidence of any unelected set-up delivering on the economic, political and social fronts.
There is the question of legitimacy regarding the actions taken under such an arrangement. Most importantly, where are the so-called technocrats to be collected from and who will choose them? There are always some hopefuls waiting in the wings to get that position. Proximity to the establishment is seen as the credential required to be part of the so-called group of experts.
There is no magic wand that they have to turn around the country and solve all our ills. In fact, some of these so-called technocrats have been responsible for many of the problems now facing the country. The solution to our predicament lies within the democratic process, however flawed it may be. There is no shortcut to resolving our chronic structural problems.
Ideally, elections are the only way to end the existing political and economic uncertainty. But it can only happen if political forces sit together to agree on a mechanism for free and fair elections. In the absence of an accord, the elections will remain controversial, as we have seen in the past. That would deepen our political crisis. There is not only a need for a charter of democracy but also a charter of economy to move the country forward. One can only hope that sanity will prevail.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2023