After six hours of intense deliberations, the 10 party Pakistan Democratic Movement has finally agreed on two agenda items. First, the stakeholders will fashion a joint election strategy for the Senate elections next March in order to maximize their collective strength. Second, they will jointly embark on a Long March from the four corners of the country to Islamabad on 26th March to besiege the government. They have also decided not to take any immediate decision regarding the contentious issue of launching a vote of no-confidence against the PTI government in the National Assembly, as advocated by the PPP leader Asif Zardari, versus mass resignations from national and provincial parliaments as advocated by the PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif, as a means of ousting Imran Khan from office. It is assumed that this issue will be decided after the Long March which, it is hoped, will clear the fog of disagreement among its leading components regarding such issues.
The PTI government will struggle to hide its disappointment that the PDM has not collapsed under the weight of its internal disagreement on a core issue. Sheikh Rashid, the interior minister who has been specially roped in to try and throw a spanner in the PDM works by praising Mr Zardari’s option of going for a vote of no confidence as the proper “democratic” route of getting rid of a government as opposed to resigning from parliaments and rendering the “democratic” system dysfunctional, will now have to clutch at some other fork to pitch the PDM into disarray. Indeed, the PDM has artfully kept both options open without betraying any tilt one way or the other. Its thinking goes like this.
The most important thing right now is to demonstrate unity of thought and action when the government and media have succeeded in creating a perception that the various PDM jalsas and rallies have not combined to create any decisive impact or momentum, not least the “hard” anti-Miltablishment stance of Mr Sharif. This objective has now been achieved by putting these differences on the back burner to be debated and discussed at an opportune moment after March 26th when all sides will know how their strengths and weaknesses tally up. Until then, both options can be kept alive and kicking. If the Long March fails to create the political conditions for a crisis of the hybrid system that leads to a successful vote of no-confidence and regime change, then the resignations issue can come into play to create a different sort of deadlock to achieve the same objective. In this way, Mr Zardari can have an opportunity in the next two months to persuade the Miltablishment to abandon Imran Khan and switch to an interim arrangement without loss of face. If he fails, then he will have no reason not to support Mr Sharif’s hard line as a fall-back position.
There is another aspect of a potential regime change formula that is quite problematic and is best left to later for resolution. Mr Zardari wants a key role in forming a coalition government if Imran Khan is knocked out. Since his strategy is dependent on mutual back-scratching with the Miltablishment – without whom the PTI alliance will not break up and a vote of no-confidence against it cannot be successfully drummed up — he will seek a government that lasts until the next scheduled general elections, partly to consolidate his personal and party gains, and partly to guarantee safe passage to the leaders of the Miltablishment targeted by Mr Sharif. But that is not what Mr Sharif wants. He seeks a quick election that sweeps the PMLN to power for five years, rather than a lame-duck coalition government for a couple of years that discredits and diminishes the PMLN’s prospects of going it alone with full powers. Trying to resolve it now is putting the cart before the horse.
If the PDM has managed to stick together and show resolve, the same cannot be said about the PTI government which is thrashing about in a stormy sea. The economic recovery on which Imran Khan has banked for smoother sailing isn’t on the horizon. His MNAs, MPAs and alliance partners are restive about his ability to redeem pledges and apprehensive of cracks in his “partnership” with the brass. Every day brings fresh disclosures of corruption and incompetence in government and strident censures from an increasingly frustrated higher judiciary and aggressive social media that is rapidly increasing its public footprint and asserting its independence. To top it all, Pakistan’s relations with foreign friends and foes aren’t good under this PTI regime. India could take advantage of the disunity and disability in the Pakistan to strike and divert attention from its own internal woes. The Saudi-led OIC is alienated and unhelpful. Qatar is bristling with anger at the PTI government’s allegations of hanky-panky in the gas deal signed by the previous PMLN. There is no sign of any stable arrangement in Kabul that will protect Pakistan’s interests in the future. China is frustrated by a go-slow on the CPEC front and the status and control of Gwador is becoming a thorny issue. Any thread can snap and hasten the PTI government’s day of reckoning.
It is also obvious that Nawaz Sharif and Co are looking and sounding more confident today while Imran Khan and Co are looking and sounding more flaky than at any time in the last two years. Clearly, too, the Miltablishment is decidedly wary of proclaiming its “same page” support to its selected prime minister. Indeed, there are loud whispers about impending postings and transfers that might not auger well for the beleaguered prime minister.
The pending bye-elections and Senate elections will provide the first litmus test for both government and opposition to try and gain advantage. The Long March will be a second test of stamina and endurance for both. After that will start a period of strife and turmoil in and out of parliament. Damned will be he who first cries “Hold! Enough!”