Dejection and Despair

Dejection and Despair
The July 17 by-elections on 20 seats in Punjab could be a watershed moment. They will test the PMLN’s decision to boldly steer the country out of treacherous waters and the PTI’s relentless bid to take advantage of its unpopular measures and overthrow it. Should the PMLN win big, it will be able to retain and stabilize its government in Punjab and dig its heels in comfortably in Islamabad. Should the PTI upset the boat, its campaign to demonstrate its popularity and sow discord within the Miltablishment will get a fillip and its demand for fresh general elections will become shrill and violent. In short, a win for the PMLN will usher a desperate dose of political stability and economic certainty while a win for the PTI will push the country and political system in the opposite direction, at least in the immediate future.

However, pundits are wary of forecasting a sweep for any party. The PMLN’s popularity has declined since it took tough economic decisions that have hurt its voters. Also, its traditional supporters don’t like some of the candidates it is fielding out of necessity because they won their seats earlier on a PTI ticket.

The PTI, on the other hand, is on a do-or-die mission. Imran Khan is successfully spinning his narrative of “imported government of chors” and, like him, his supporters have acquired a Teflon hide on which adverse facts about their leader and his earlier government’s dismal performance simply don’t stick. He is also unabashedly calling upon them to resort to violence and vote stuffing if necessary, even as he continues to mount pressure on the high courts and election commission or Pakistan and seeks to instigate rebellion in the Miltablishment. He has also opportunistically decided to field strong traditional candidates instead of ideological ones. The race is therefore perceived to be so rough and tough in some constituencies that two PMLN federal ministers have resigned their posts to rush home and canvass for their party’s candidates.

The Miltablishment, that was in favour of immediate elections after PTI’s ouster last April because Imran Khan’s popularity was fading, decided to let the PMLN defer the option when it agreed to shoulder the burden of imposing economic hardship measures, courtesy the IMF, but may be forced into second thoughts if Imran Khan has his way. A conspiracy theory is already doing the rounds that says the Miltablishment might consider dispensing with the PDM government after the IMF deal is signed and sealed and order fresh elections by October that will likely fulfil its core requirements: deflect Imran Khan’s pressure for new elections and yield a hung parliament whereby the Miltablishment can once again cobble a coalition government that will do its bidding like the current PDM under Shehbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari (what better way to keep both troublemakers Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif out of the reckoning?). This way, says this conspiracy theory, come November, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa can manipulate the nomination of the next army chief who suits his retirement plans or get another extension for himself.

Meanwhile, an interesting twist has been added to the unfolding drama. It has been leaked that the Miltablishment wants to bring back General (retd) Pervez Musharraf to Pakistan for two reasons. First, to delegitimize the Article 6 sword hanging over the head of a former army chief as an institutional security guarantee for the future – it has already manipulated the overturn of the harsh death sentence awarded to General (retd) Musharraf by the Peshawar high Court. Second, to pave the way for the return of Ishaq Dar and Nawaz Sharif. Indeed, when talk was rife of this possibility, Mr Dar announced his intention to return to Pakistan by end July. Now General (retd) Musharraf’s family sources are reported as saying that he has no intention of returning until his doctors give the green light. This has prompted a flurry of news reports, some quoting PMLN bigwigs in Islamabad like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Khwaja Asif, that Mr Dar is not returning home as originally announced, and some referencing Mr Dar himself as saying that his return plan hasn’t changed. At the end of the day, however, it all depends on whether or not the Supreme Court will finally hear his three year-old petition against his nomination as a “Proclaimed Absconder”. If the court holds in his favour, he may return to fight the NAB case against him. If it doesn’t, it should be taken to mean that justice is still hostage to Miltablishment politics. Whether this was all part of an elaborate plan to pretend that the Miltablishment wants to facilitate his return but doesn’t in reality, only time will tell by the way in which the decisions of the superior courts and General Bajwa unfold in the coming months and whether the PDM leadership offers any resistance or not.

The political and economic forecast is gloomy. At best, the IMF program will impose hardships on all sectors of society but especially on the relatively poor. It will clip investment and growth and lead to a rise in unemployment without significantly clamping down on double-digit inflation. If the PDM government doesn’t radically tax the wealth and incomes of the rich, swiftly privatise the bleeding state enterprises and stop subsidizing privileged sectors of state and economy, to set a platform for sustainable development without internal and external conflict, we shall continue to stumble in the dark woods of dejection and despair.

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.