IF the government decides to call for elections just a few days shy of the current parliament’s term-end, the caretaker administration will have 90 days in which to complete the process, and if the term is completed, then in 60 days. This would translate into elections in the first half of either October or November.
My own bet would be November as that would give more time to the government coalition parties and their backers to get a tighter grasp on the process. Two important offices will change hands in September. The president’s term ends on Sept 9 and the chief justice of Pakistan’s seven days later, on the 16th.
Despite President Arif Alvi’s quick assent earlier this week to legislation passed by parliament to expand the scope of reviews in the Supreme Court verdicts in suo motu cases, the government and its powerful allies would not have forgotten his foot-dragging on other pieces of legislation passed by parliament on multiple occasions.
While after the elections the new parliament will elect a new president, for now the powers that be may be far more comfortable with their own long-term protégé, the Senate chairman, who seems also to have been adopted by the PML-N-led coalition government.
It is now clear that every impediment, legal or otherwise, will be placed in the path of PTI.
The other change will be in the office of the chief justice of Pakistan as Justice Qazi Faez Isa takes over from the soon-to-retire incumbent chief justice. Government figures have been critical of the latter as they perceive a softer approach on his part towards the PTI.
This criticism appears to partially stem from the Supreme Court judgement in the floor-crossing case in the election of Hamza Shehbaz as Punjab chief minister where even eminent lawyers said the Constitution was being rewritten rather than interpreted.
The court ruled that the legislators voting against the party whip would not only lose their assembly membership, as the Constitution mandated, but also that their vote would not count. Ergo, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi was reinstalled as the provincial chief executive.
Many political commentators attribute the current crisis in the country to that judgement. Government ministers were outraged, claiming bias. This perception might have been reinforced by the forming of benches, as the Supreme Court rules empower the CJP to do, following seemingly inexplicable criteria that excluded some of the most senior and respected judges from hearing cases of political significance.
It is now clear that every impediment, legal or otherwise, will be placed in the path of the PTI and its leader going forward. The party and its leader, perhaps under the false impression of substantial support in key institutions, may have grossly overplayed their hand on May 9.
Who knows what they’d been led to believe by utterly over-the-top YouTubers, over-egging the pudding for more followers, views and the consequent monetary windfall. Or had insiders misread the mood within and sold an utterly fictional scenario? Whatever the case, a strategy devised on a false premise failed and the payback has been severe.
It is assumed that any legal bar on the party, or more significantly, on its leader will end up in the superior judiciary and, therefore, it would be better when, in the view of the government and its backers, the formation of more neutral and balanced benches is likely.
However, those placing too much hope in the set-up beyond mid-September would do well to remember that all of the judges excluded from hearing cases in recent months, including the senior puisne judge, are fiercely independent and strong-minded. So, the cases before them would have to be watertight to get a favourable verdict.
All of the above factors must be among the variables going into the matrix as decision-makers prepare their plans for the next elections and, equally important, ‘the before and after’ scenarios. The PTI seems to be collapsing like a house of cards.
Its supporters argue with justification that their fanatical support base across the country can’t be ignored or disenfranchised. But they should also consider that it is equally true that a party network and organisational structure is what delivers that support to the polling stations and translates into votes.
Candidates play an important role as well. A popular party may poll a certain percentage of votes in every constituency but every party looks for strong candidates who bring their own vote banks with them, particularly in rural and/or semi-urban constituencies. As we speak, the PTI is looking a bit vulnerable in this area. Let’s see what sort of a line-up they are able to muster for the elections.
On the other side of the divide, the line-up is yet to approach its final shape with four to five months still to go for elections. Every analyst knows where parties such as PML-N, PPP, MQM, ANP, JUI-F and BAP are strong, but this time round the scales may also be tipped — at least in some parts of the country — by ‘electables’ leaving the PTI and joining other parties.
Also, it is still not clear whether senior PTI leaders leaving the party will form a grouping of their own, join one of the established parties or go with their former colleague Jahangir Khan Tareen who is reportedly forming his own party.
While everyone remains preoccupied with moves on the political chessboard, the economy continues to represent a picture of a severe crisis. Inflation is running so high that it is devastating low- to medium-income families. How the rage of such a vast segment of the population manifests itself is another intangible. Over the coming months, punditry will remain fraught with dangers and some/all of us may get personal experience of what egg on our faces feels like.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2023