Yousaf Raza Gilani’s win in the senate elections against the odds favouring Hafeez Sheikh, has given a resounding fillip to “Sab pe bhaari, Asif Zardari”. Not only has Mr Zardari increased the PPP’s tally in the Senate to 20 seats and the PDM’s to 53, including the Chairmanship if required, he now has the upper hand within the PDM in devising a strategy to oust Imran Khan because he has proved his mettle. As opposed to Nawaz Sharif’s strategy of Long March followed by resignations from Parliament to log jam government and compel Imran Khan to quit, followed by immediate general elections, Mr Zardari has always favoured an In-House change to oust Imran Khan and bring in a PPP-led government headed by Bilawal Bhutto until the next scheduled general elections in 2023. Now his prowess at wheeling-dealing has brought him within striking range of his objective.
In the run-up to the Senate elections, the PTI’s worry was writ large on Imran Khan’s face. Bruised by the PDM’s frontal attack, especially on its leaders by Nawaz Sharif, the Miltablishment decided to loosen its embrace of Imran Khan to protect its eroding credibility. This led to a rout of the PTI by the PMLN in the recent by-elections and emboldened the Election Commission of Pakistan not only to stand its ground but also condemn the PTI administration in the Punjab for electoral fraud and malpractice. Alarmed, the PTI then hurried to stem the tide by petitioning the Supreme Court to disallow secret balloting in the Senate elections. But, suitably chastened by a popular wave lauding the CEC’s neutrality, and relieved of direct Miltablishment pressure, the SC didn’t oblige. When the Miltablishment further refrained from any forceful and direct intervention to prop up the PTI’s crumbling defences, Imran Khan was forced to eat humble pie. He tried to rally his party, called on the Chaudhries in Lahore while his saintly better half went to pray at Data Darbar, but to no avail.
Mr Zardari took full advantage of the visible disgruntlement within the PTI to stitch up a dozen or so MPAs from Sindh to get an extra seat in the Senate, likewise by adding critical MNA votes in Islamabad to edge Yousaf Raza Gilani past the post. He also suggested that, under desperate SOS pressure from Imran Khan, some last minute discreet phone calls by the Miltablishment to errant MNAs may have served to reduce his candidate’s winning lead. What next?
All stakeholders are retreating into a huddle. The Miltablishment has to decide two fundamental issues: Has the time come to ditch Imran Khan? If so, is it ready to ally with Asif Zardari against Nawaz Sharif in quest of some “solution”? Nawaz Sharif has also to decide two critical issues: Is he ready to take a back seat for the next two years and allow Mr Zardari to rule the roost with the help of the Miltablishment? Or is he going to insist on his anti-Miltablishment-Immediate Election strategy and risk losing his timid or opportunist party members to the new power brokers in the offing?
The Miltablishment has invested heavily in the current hybrid system under Imran Khan. In particular, two of its leaders have personal stakes in its longevity. But Imran Khan’s dismal performance has left the Miltablishment gasping for breath to salvage its pride and credibility after Nawaz Sharif’s stinging attacks on its leadership. If it sticks to Imran, it will be targeted and degraded by the PDM, which is against its longer-term institutional interests. If it doesn’t, it will have to seek out options to keep both Imran and Nawaz at bay. That won’t be easy, considering that between the two of them they control an overwhelming majority of the popular vote. But it’s not impossible either. The Miltablishment has a well-trodden history of both seizing power when the moment is ripe and retreating when there is a popular upsurge against it.
March and April are going to be decisive months. Imran Khan is licking his wounds, wondering how and when to redeem his right to rule unfettered. He says he is going to rouse parliament to give him a vote of confidence. But he doesn’t say when he is going to do that because he is no longer sure what definite and concrete assistance he can expect from the Miltablishment without which he is a goner. Since his MNAs and MPAs know that there’s no such thing as “neutrality”, they will slip out of the corral if the Miltablishment doesn’t come out with resounding support. Recent developments will then be seen as a trailer of the real movie to come.
Unlike the PTI and Miltablishment, the PDM’s next steps can be anticipated. These will include consolidation in the Senate, possibly by electing Mr Gilani as Chairman, and preparations for the Long March as a follow-up show of popular force. Behind the scenes, Mr Zardari will be busy trying to stitch up deals with the Miltablishment and its PMLQ, MQM, GDA and Baloch allied parties to launch a successful vote of no confidence against Imran Khan in the National Assembly or to thwart his bid for a vote of confidence. Since every PTI MNA and MPA knows that he/she doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in the next elections on a PTI ticket whenever these are held, each will be constantly weighing prospects of switching to the future winning side, and the last thing on his/her mind will be disqualification from parliament if a has-been PTI accuses them of floor crossing.
A hybrid political system based on rigged elections and headed by an arrogant, incompetent, authoritarian and reckless prime minister like Imran Khan can last only so long as the gun-toting Miltablishment’s resolve to support it is firm, open and unequivocal and the performance of its government is above par. Recent events have shown that neither condition prevails right now. It is to Nawaz Sharif’s credit that he has pushed the Miltablishment back to the wings and to Asif Zardari’s for pulling it to the drawing board again.