The PDM government has finally taken the plunge. After weeks of dithering over various options, it has decided to dig its heels in, resist Imran Khan’s demand for fresh elections, sign the IMF conditionalities, make a tough budget and plough on with or without help from the Miltablishment. Since elections will likely be ordered sooner or later, only time will tell whether this was a wise decision or not.
Option One was to swiftly carry out electoral and NAB laws, announce a caretaker government to hold an election sometime in August or September, and go home without putting any burden on the masses conditioned by the IMF. The logic of this route was obvious enough: let the Miltablishment that condoned Imran Khan’s disastrous mismanagement for four years clean up its puppet’s mess, backed by the narrative that the PDM had voluntarily given up the perks and privileges of power rather than burden the masses with sharp price hikes and deflationary economic policies. The outcome of an election under such conditions would have been favourable to the constituent parties of the PDM.
Option Two was to do the Miltablishment’s bidding: first, take the tough decisions needed to bring the IMF and various donors back to Pakistan and stave off an unprecedented financial crisis; then announce elections in September. Any notion of resisting Miltablishment pressure to hold elections could not be countenanced because of the latter’s unchallenged ability to manipulate the MQM and BAP upon whose critical votes the PDM depends for its survival. This option was rejected in the mid-May London huddle called by the PMLN chief, Nawaz Sharif, because it would alienate the PDM from the voters without ensuring longevity to redeem its economic policies.
In the event, even as the government was planning its exit strategy, the decision was taken out of its hands by Imran Khan’s announcement of Monday 25 May Long March to force an early election. How could any party or government succumb to such blackmailing pressure and hope to persuade the electorate of its political virility? On the contrary, this stiffened its back. It now resolved to resist and fail the Long March. When Imran Khan’s threat petered out – partly because of insufficient popular backing from Punjab and partly because of the government’s hardball resistance – the PDM decided to press home its advantage, endear itself to the Miltablishment by agreeing to take the tough decisions to bail out the economy. Does this mean that the threat from Imran Khan has been repulsed for good, that the PDM government is here to stay until the end of 2023, that the Miltablishment has finally found its long lost political partner and can afford to junk the PTI?
No. Two factors militate against such conclusions. The first is Imran Khan. He simply cannot be written off because of the significant popular support that he enjoys and because such support is both passionate, committed and across the board. He will continue to pose problems for any dispensation before, during and after any general elections. The second is the rift within the Miltablishment: one section believes he is a liability who has discredited the Miltablishment that nurtured him, isolated the country diplomatically and plunged it into economic crisis, therefore he cannot be entrusted with such responsibility again; the second section still supports him because it hates the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris who have dynastically lorded it over the country for three decades without distinction. It is this section that wants Imran Khan to actively remain in the game and is involved in a power struggle within the Miltablishment to achieve its objective. The matter is complicated because both sections want to consolidate the Miltablishment’s hold over national politics by ensuring no single party wins a majority in the next elections.
Under the circumstances, the PTI’s propaganda machine has gone into overdrive to establish that the 25th May Long March was such a huge success that the PDM government has succumbed to the six day reprieve given by Imran Khan and will announce the election schedule in the next few days. The government’s response is exactly the opposite. It claims the Long March was a flop and Khan will think twice before making a second attempt. It has also dug its heels in for a longer haul.
What happens next will depend on two main factors. First, on Imran Khan’s ability to continue to raise small and big storms to destabilise the government and pressure the Miltablishment to compel the government to announce elections sooner than later. Second, on the government’s performance to straighten out the economy and rebuild international relations as soon as possible, thereby earning the grudging support of the Miltablishment and staving off pressure for early elections.
The PDM government has a hard job at hand. It’s alliance partners are not reliable or trustworthy. The President of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, is a PTI thorn in the heart of government determined to wound it at every stage. The judiciary is, by and large, pro-Imran Khan when it is not overtly pro-Miltablishment. The PDM government in the Punjab hangs by a thread in the hands of the judges. The masses are going to groan under the weight of the IMF austerity program and show their displeasure in so many ways. And Imran Khan’s propaganda machine is aiming to relentlessly hunt the leaders of the PDM and give no quarter.
The greater likelihood, therefore, is that the PDM may wilt under such pressure in the next two months and be compelled to announce elections. That will bring the Caretakers in and hand over the reins of government directly to the Miltablishment, aided by the judiciary. How long the Caretakers stay and what they do will be the next item on the Miltablishment’s agenda. Much will also depend on the forecast of which party will win a majority or not and which Four Star General will rule the roost in Rawalpindi in December this year. Stay tuned.