While the economy teeters on the brink and a new surge of militant violence threatens the country’s security, the political situation descends into more chaos.
The country’s intensifying challenges prompted Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to call an all-parties conference but this did nothing to lower the political temperature. Indeed, there is no indication that political leaders are willing to pause their political war to find solutions to Pakistan’s multiple crises. Instead, recent developments have plunged politics into a more volatile and confused state. Uncertainty rules as politics gets messier.
The dissolution of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies opened another chapter in the fierce political confrontation between the government and opposition. While opposition leader Imran Khan hoped this would force the PDM government to call early general elections, the ruling alliance stuck to its guns and insisted that national polls would only be held once parliament completes its full term in August. But it left the PML-N-led government having to deal with the constitutional obligation of holding elections to provincial assemblies in the stipulated 90-day period. Its governor in Punjab is however demurring over fixing a date. This despite the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) writing to him and proposing dates between April 9 and 13 and reminding him of his constitutional duty to announce elections within 90 days from the date of dissolution of the assembly. ECP has also suggested between April 15 and 17 for the KP election.
The delay reflects PML-N’s reluctance to press ahead on this count. This was laid bare in a recent meeting of PDM heads. News reports indicated that a case was made by some in the party to delay provincial elections on the grounds that these should follow a digital census due to get underway in March. This, it was argued, would be consistent with an earlier decision of the Council of Common Interests that the next elections should be held according to a new census. This argument ignores the fact that such decisions cannot override constitutional stipulations. Some in the ruling party have apparently invoked the financial cost of holding multiple elections as an argument for delay, pointing out that holding two provincial and national elections at a different time would be unprecedented in the country’s history.
PML-N’s assessment seems to be that provincial elections within 90 days would advantage Khan. If PTI does exceptionally well that would set the template for national polls later. Given the political cost the ruling alliance is incurring due to the tough economic measures it is taking to resume the IMF loan programme and the worsening energy crisis, it needs time for a course correction to improve its position before going to the polls. Party leaders also think more time would enable them to end internal discord and divisions in what is their rudderless Punjab organisation today.
The country’s multiple crises have not persuaded political leaders to pause the political war.
Whether or not this political calculation is well grounded, any effort to delay provincial elections will further complicate the situation, even spark a constitutional crisis. The matter will again be left to the courts to decide. Already the governor’s prevarication over fixing an election date is in court. More litigation can be expected with the Supreme Court likely to be involved if provincial polls are postponed beyond April. This would mean asking the courts to suspend the 90-day constitutional requirement, which will take some doing. It will certainly reinforce the growing impression that PDM is running scared of elections.
For his part, KP Governor Ghulam Ali has said that the law and order situation in his province was not suitable to hold elections. After the terrorist attack on a mosque in Peshawar, which claimed over 100 lives, he wrote a letter to the ECP. In this he asked it to consult all relevant stakeholders including political parties and law-enforcement agencies before fixing a date for the polls in view of the “alarming” security situation in the province. Later, the Punjab governor wrote a similar letter to ECP citing the country’s security as well as economic situation. While the timing of provincial elections is still up in the air, if they are held on schedule, it will mean there will be elected, and not neutral caretaker governments in place when general elections are held. This will create its own complications and hand the losing party an excuse to explain its defeat and more consequentially to reject the outcome — a catch-22 situation.
Adding to the current political confusion are by-elections announced to 33 National Assembly seats for March 16. ECP has fixed March19 for another 31 seats. These became vacant after the resignations of PTI MNAs were hurriedly accepted by the National Assembly speaker. So, a major electoral exercise will get underway in March whose outcome may shape political dynamics for general elections but in which winning candidates from PTI will not even join the current NA. In any case, whoever wins will only serve for four months as a member before the Assembly is dissolved. The PPP has decided to contest the by-elections but PML-N is still undecided — indecision increasingly becoming the hallmark of the party leadership.
There are two important conclusions to draw from all of this. One, that political turmoil, ceaseless power struggles and frequent appeals to courts to settle political disputes are all taking place at a time when the country is faced with serious challenges to its financial solvency and security. This shows a disconnect from reality by the warring parties. It also suggests a lack of concern for issues that will actually determine the fate and fortunes of the country. Two, the searing political divide and polarisation portends a troubled outlook for what might happen before, during and after general elections, whenever they are called. With political parties constantly on a collision course, unable to agree on anything and confronting each other on everything, there is little chance of any consensus on the rules of the road leading to national polls and, more importantly, on accepting its outcome. This suggests political stability might remain elusive in a country that needs it more desperately now than ever.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2023