Will Imran Khan back down?

The outcome of the intense negotiations in Islamabad will depend on whether the PTI chief will leave without the prime minister's resignation

Will Imran Khan back down?
Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan, who led a protest march towards Islamabad demanding nothing less than the departure of an elected prime minister, has now apparently come out of a megalomaniac state of mind and started realizing that the political crisis should be resolved through dialogue instead of resorting to violence and other unconstitutional measures. There was certainly a huge gap between his demands and the ground realities that needed to be narrowed down. His call for civil disobedience has also turned out to be a hoax, as he himself has paid his utility bills for August.

Before leaving Lahore on August 14, he had said he would hardly reach Islamabad before Nawaz Sharif would step down, more than a year after he swept to office in the country’s first democratic transition of power. That did not happen, and the fledgling government has, so far, survived the protests at a time when it is fighting on many other fronts. Some of the major challenges the government has to deal with are restoring its trust with the all-time powerful army, the worsening problem of IDPs, and the rehabilitation of those affected by one of the most devastating floods in the history of Pakistan.

The government has denounced Imran Khan’s demands as pure political hogwash, and has stressed the need to resolve the issue through dialogue. The two sides have held 13 rounds of talks as of late Tuesday. The first round of dialogue between negotiating teams of the PTI and the government was held a couple of days after the marchers reached Islamabad, but initially, they did not see it as a tool to end the standoff. But it now seems that they have realized there is no other way out.

The government convened a joint session of the parliament. All the lawmakers, except those from the PTI, expressed relentless support for Nawaz Sharif and his government to save the nascent democracy and the constitution. The speakers in the session gave clear messages to the protesters that they would not tolerate any extra-constitutional move.

The allied opposition also formed a Jirga to help facilitate the negotiating parties. Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) emir Sirajul Haq and PPP’s representative Rehman Malik, both part of the Jirga, have urged the PTI leadership to reconcile with the government. And they have played a vital role in bringing the two parties on one page. There is a clear consensus among the opposition parties that the PTI, which is still part of the parliament since their resignations have not been accepted by the speaker as yet, should back off from their unconstitutional demands.

Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf has put forward six demands, including the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. For the first time on Monday, when the two teams met twice in a single day in a bid to end the deadlock, they agreed on all points but two – which were left for their leaders to decide. Neither of them are willing to give up on those two points.

“We have agreed on almost everything. Only two contentious issues remain. One of them is not negotiable for us,” Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who is leading the government negotiating team, told reporters on Monday.

PTI's Jehangir Tareen shakes hands with JI's Sirajul Haq after negotiations on September 3
PTI's Jehangir Tareen shakes hands with JI's Sirajul Haq after negotiations on September 3

According to some reports, the talks have concluded and both sides have agreed to constitute a judicial commission by the prime minister, which would probe the alleged electoral rigging. If the commission finds out a systematic rigging in the 2013 general elections, then the entire PML-N government would have to resign, a proposal PML-N senior leadership has been offering repeatedly. But, according to some insiders, there were differences on the terms of reference of the commission. The issue Ishaq Dar was referring to as nonnegotiable most likely be the resignation of the prime minster.

Despite the deadlock, PTI vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters on Monday that some progress had been made but disagreement remained on two core issues. He said his side had been very positive, and for the first time since the talks began, government negotiators also seem concerned. Before Monday, Qureshi had said that “there is certainly a trust deficit between the two and if we say there is nothing like that we are making fools of ourselves.”

Qureshi’s team was joined by senior PTI leader Jahangir Tareen while Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Minister for Science and Technology Zahid Hamid were representing the government.

While addressing the joint session of the parliament last Wednesday, Qureshi did not demand the resignation of the prime minister. Another senior PTI leader Asad Umer, said on Monday that “differences are being narrowed but as we stand right now, there are still gaps in three different areas.”

Imran Khan is still adamant on his demand for Nawaz Sharif to step down. Political experts say he would risk disappointing his dwindling following that was wooed with the promise of bringing down the Sharif government, if he gave up on the demand. But he will eventually have to back off, and he most likely will.