Contours of a roadmap

Published August 6, 2023
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WITH Imran Khan’s conviction, a three-year prison sentence ‘for corrupt practices’ in the Toshakhana case, and automatic disqualification from holding or running for public office, the process of creating what the PML-N calls a level playing field is undeniably underway.

The PTI chairman has now become the third leader after PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani and PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif to have been barred from public office by the courts in little over a decade. Whilst Mr Gilani and Mr Sharif were disqualified while prime minister, Mr Khan suffered the same fate 16 months after being voted out of office. The last two were also sentenced to prison terms.

Our history since 2012, when Mr Gilani was disqualified, is recent enough not to warrant much recounting. And events that led to the premature guillotining of Nawaz Sharif from office and politics are even fresher in everyone’s minds.

Think of the word ‘accountability’ and you immediately think of successful, popular politicians who became a little too self-assured for the comfort of powerful quarters — quarters that still rule the roost and hold the levers of real power and all that matters. That is, even if civilian politicians after a short while in office, start believing in their own primacy, in their own legitimacy, in their Constitution-bestowed authority. Notwithstanding the disastrous consequences in some instances, they choose not to remember who paved the path to their rise to power and how they were propelled to high office.

All eyes will be focused on the choice of caretaker prime minister.

Whether or not Mr Khan gets interim relief, ie, his freedom, while his appeal against his conviction is being heard by the superior courts, will not detract from the message that has now been sent to all contenders to elected office in the next elections. That Mr Khan is no more the potent player he once was, regardless of whether he retains or even reinforces his popular support.

As in the 2018 elections, where Nawaz Sharif may have gained greater public sympathy and support after his conviction and imprisonment, the message that was conveyed was unambiguous: that his role over the following term of parliament would be insignificant. The PML-N may have been the biggest party in the Punjab Assembly, but who does not know what happened during government formation in Lahore.

Given this backdrop, the obvious question most Pakistanis would want answered today is: what next? Well, the first and foremost indication will come in the decision about the caretaker prime minister, the civilian figurehead presiding over the nation’s fate till a new parliament and chief executive are elected.

Meanwhile, elections will be held on the basis of the 2023 census after the Council of Common Interests (CCI) ‘unanimously’ approved it. Earlier, the governing coalition members PPP and MQM-P both expressed unhappiness with it.

The PPP leaders, even this past Friday, were saying that it would be disastrous to hold the next elections under the contentious census and that they would vehemently oppose it. On Saturday, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, it was endorsed ‘unanimously’, with obviously the Sindh chief minister’s among the ‘ayes’ at the CCI.

Easy to assume, the PPP and possibly MQM-P, were convinced by someone literally overnight that the polls under the latest census would lead to new delimitations that would help thwart a threat both parties faced in urban Sindh from the PTI. I concede a lot more research will be needed to figure out the mechanics of how this will be achieved, if at all it is the case.

The PML-N’s eagerness to push through for the elections under this census may also mean the party has been shown exactly how this would contribute to meeting its demand of a ‘level playing field’ which, in other words, means PTI having to face dice as loaded as the PML-N did in 2018.

If the process of dissolving parliament, as announced by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, begins next Wednesday, then the Election Commission of Pakistan will have three months in which to complete the fresh delimitations and hold elections. The ECP had taken the stance that in case of fresh delimitations several more months (more than three) will be required for the elections. In such an event, experts will have to weigh in as to what the Constitution and the law mandate. Will it mean a delay? And if it does, for how long?

That is why all eyes will be focused now on the choice of caretaker prime minister. Analysts believe that if the person named to high office is a politician then the polls could well be held by November, but they say they won’t be sure of what would happen if a ‘technocrat’, most likely an economic expert, is decided upon.

The wisdom at play here is that given the concern of GHQ about the sinking economy, if a technocrat ascends the throne they might last longer in the role than the mandated three months because they may be given room to effect a turnaround. How this fits in with constitutional provisions is another matter.

Who knows, the PML-N may wish also to gain more time to enable Nawaz Sharif to return, clear his name in the courts and possibly be a free man to decide his own political future. I suspect some of these issues may end up before the Supreme Court most likely under the chief justice who takes over the role in mid-September.

While many among us will lament any delay in the election and will see it as a huge setback to the struggling democratic process, we must ask if only the establishment is to be blamed. Over the past five years, civilian politicians, included elected ones, have joined hands with the establishment (and the judiciary) to undermine not just the spirit but also the essentials of democracy.

That’s why we find ourselves where we are: in a place where usurpers, transgressors and their black-robed collaborators are never penalised. Only the politician is.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2023

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