Known Unknowns

Known Unknowns
The PTI is continuously and vigorously making the case for a new round of general elections. This is perfectly understandable. It is out of office and wants another shot at it before its “popularity” fades in the face of Establishment’s “neutrality”. Indeed, the opposition PDM had also agitated for mid-term elections before it launched its no-confidence move last March against the PTI government because it feared Imran Khan would consolidate his grip over power – by manipulating the Establishment high command -- if he was able to complete his five-year term.

However, the PDM was confronted with an agonising dilemma after it formed a coalition government in April: should it implement a minimal reform agenda comprising electoral and NAB laws and dissolve parliament within the month in the coalition’s party political interests or dig its heels in for the longer haul until 2023 and implement an unpopular IMF programme in the “national interest”?

The PMLN huddle in London decided to opt for an immediate dissolution because it felt it could not risk alienating the populace by signing on the dotted line with the IMF, better that the Establishment now take responsibility for the mess it had created by propping up a disastrous PTI regime for four years and get an unaccountable Caretaker regime to take and implement hardship decisions. But it was compelled to change its decision after Imran Khan announced a long march to oust the government and gave a six-day ultimatum to dissolve parliament. How could the PDM succumb to this “blackmailing threat”, it was argued, without losing face with the electorate? Under the circumstances, it has now decided to take the hard decisions in the “ national interest” and pray that the electorate forgets and forgives it when the elections are held 15 months hence.

But a new apprehension has now arisen. What if, after the hardship budget is implemented, Imran Khan should succeed in pressurising the Establishment and/or Judiciary to pull the rug from under the PDM government and trigger fresh elections? In such a case, wouldn’t the pursuit of an unpopular “national interest” in the short term amount to a big blow to the PDM parties’ political interests and pave the way for a rejuvenated PTI-Establishment/Judiciary nexus all over again?

Such concerns are not unreasonable. There is speculation that the Establishment may have assured Imran Khan that it would guarantee fresh elections later this year if he extended his ultimatum for a long march until after the PDM government had brought the IMF back to Pakistan. The PDM is already facing the heat over its decision to raise energy prices and this is just the beginning of the long haul back to economic sustainability and political stability. A popular survey has added to the PDM’s anxieties: it claims that over 66% of the sample tested are in favour of elections this year. Inflation is forecast by reputed economists to rise above 23% and economic growth will go down after the IMF reforms are initiated, leading to a backlash against the PDM government.

Curiously enough, though, the case for fresh elections made out by some academics rests on the argument that the harsh economic measures to reset the economy require a fresh mandate from the people. As opposed to this, it can be argued that elections in Pakistan have rarely been about mandated issues and this isn’t about to change now. Indeed, there is no guarantee that a post-election government – whether PDM or PTI -- will embark upon a more sustainable economic programme than the one underway currently under the aegis of the IMF.

Further, any disruption in the current reform process for at least three or four months will lead to greater uncertainty and instability which will make the task of economic revival all the more difficult. No, now that the PDM government has undertaken the onerous responsibility of halting the slide into economic anarchy and financial bankruptcy in the “national interest”, it should be allowed to deliver the goods in the next fifteen months without pulling the rug from under its feet. It is a win-win situation for Pakistan even if it leads to an erosion of the PDM’s electoral prospects in due course.

The next month or so is going to test the efficacy of Imran Khan’s pressure tactics on the Establishment and PDM. But some issues are clear. If the Establishment remains steadfastly “neutral” and doesn’t succumb to Khan’s pressure to oust the PDM government, Shehbaz Sharif & Co are not likely to wilt under any popular backlash. It is also certain that the PDM government has the will and ability to take the steam out of Imran Khan’s agitation as the interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, has demonstrated. But another serious known unknown remains.

This is the role of the judiciary, in particular the Supreme Court of Pakistan. In the last decade or so, the SCP under CJPs Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Saqib Nisar and Asif Khosa has delivered some atrocious judgments biased against the PPP and PMLN and solely in line with core Establishment interests. In the last four years, it has also protected Imran Khan and the PTI from the arm of the law when it was challenged by the opposition parties. Now it appears to be flexing its muscle once again against the PDM government. The protection afforded to Imran Khan by four judges out of five against a blatant violation of a court order on May 25 not to enter D-Chowk in Islamabad has not escaped adverse comment on social media questioning the avowed “neutrality” of the judges.

The encroachment on the rights of the elected executive to make appointments and transfers in government and regulate the Exit Control List is another case in point. Now the SC is threatening to opine on the appointment of a new NAB chief -- which is the sole prerogative of the government and opposition in parliament -- and itching to become prosecutor and judge at the same time regarding corruption allegations/cases against top government figures. And so on, leading to the suspicion that Imran Khan’s strategy of focusing on and targeting the SCP for “relief” is not without sinister motivation and effect.

We shall see which way the wind is likely to blow in the coming weeks and months and comment accordingly. But one thing is clear. If Pakistan is to survive unprecedented state failure, we must put an end to political instability engineered by Establishment/Judicial interventions outside of their respective constitutional domains.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.