Miltablishment “Neutrality”?

Miltablishment “Neutrality”?
For two years, the Opposition cried itself hoarse with demanding elections but Imran Khan refused to heed its call. Indeed, on the eve of the no-confidence move on March 7, he said he welcomed the challenge and would neither resign nor dissolve parliament. But when all seemed lost a few week later, he asked President Arif Alvi to dissolve parliament and order fresh elections. In the event, however, the Opposition succeeded in ousting him and formed a government, not with the intent to hold immediate elections but stay put until the end of next year and put the country back on the rails. Now Imran Khan is demanding elections and threatening to march on to Islamabad and drag the PDM government down.

The PDM deliberated and decided against holding quick elections for four main reasons. It wanted to fill two vacancies in the Election Commission of Pakistan that had rendered it weak so that it could neither hold elections efficiently, nor conclude the Foreign Funding Case against the PTI. It also sought to legislate electoral laws against EVMs and Dual Nationals which are unworkable or put it at a distinct disadvantage. It wanted to defang NAB and make it less hostile towards businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians because it had metamorphosized over time from a credible anti-corruption watchdog into an unaccountable and ruthless institution to victimize opponents of the sitting government or Miltablishment. The PDM also sought time to wrap up the NAB and FIA “cases”  -- which haven’t yielded any convictions in four years despite dogged efforts by Imran Khan -- against its leaders and set them free to take on the PTI. But, one month into government, the PDM is floundering, unsure of its goals, while Imran Khan is making a threatening comeback on a one point agenda of immediate elections. Meanwhile, with every passing day, the economy is tanking and time for very hard and unpopular decisions by the sitting government is already past its expiry date.

Under normal circumstances – political certainty and longevity -- the PDM would have lined up with the IMF and pulled the country out of the trough into which Imran Khan had thrown it. But Imran Khan has thrown a spanner in the works. He has successfully divided the Miltablishment and stopped it from supporting the PDM government. Indeed, there is evidence to believe that the Miltablishment has come under pressure from its rank and file to side with Imran Khan’s demand for quick elections. Under the circumstances, the PDM finds itself up the creek without a paddle. Damned if it implements the IMF’s agenda, triggering a popular backlash against it, giving the Miltablishment and PTI an excuse to drag it into an election when its graph is down. Damned if it doesn’t, hastening a financial bankruptcy of the economy and leading to chaos and anarchy with terrible consequences for the country.

The huddle in London with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and half the cabinet called recently by PMLN President Nawaz Sharif deliberated on the way out of this crisis. The arguments for and against quick elections, for and against signing on the dotted line with the IMF, for and against rolling back Imran Khan’s threatening juggernaut, and the consequences of each course of action, were squarely faced. At the end of the day, the ball dropped dead in the Miltablishment’s court. If the PDM and the Miltablishment can be brought on to the same page to salvage the wreck, Imran Khan can be stopped in his tracks, the IMF bail out can be grasped and the country and economy stabilized in the 18 months before elections are due next year. But if the Miltablishment has already succumbed to pressure from Imran Khan and has decided to opt for early elections, then it makes no sense to implement the IMF program, become unpopular and risk being trounced at the elections in the next few months.

Let’s face facts. The Miltablishment’s role in the last six months has been increasingly confused and contradictory. By pulling out of the “same partisan page” with Imran Khan last year, it made him vulnerable, thereby alienating him. But by becoming “neutral” instead of actively helping the Opposition, it forced the Opposition on a long drawn out five month journey to cobble the numbers needed to oust the PTI government and lose time and opportunity to address the economic crisis bequeathed by it.  This space enabled Imran Khan to develop a powerful narrative against both the Opposition and the Miltablishment that is paying dividends. In consequence, we are confronted with the spectacle of Imran Khan demanding a Miltablishment intervention against the PDM government and the PDM government seeking assurances of continuing “neutrality” from the Miltablishment if it is expected to clean up the economic mess without adverse consequences for its electoral prospects.

Several questions arise. If the Miltablishment saw wisdom in adopting a “neutral” stance earlier, what is stopping it now from continuing on that path? Why is Imran Khan openly attacking the leaders of the Miltablishment if he is not being egged on to do so by powerful forces within  Miltablishment? Have these Miltablishment leaders become so weak that they are ready to capitulate to Imran Khan and risk taking the economy and country down with it? If they want to facilitate his return to power, why did they let him be ousted in the first place? If they had wanted quick elections, why didn’t they pull the plug on Imran Khan in November last year by winking at the MQM and Co to ditch him, fail a vote of confidence and dissolve parliament?

Time and again we find the Miltablishment’s political experiments come a cropper. This time, however, it has been a veritable disaster. The prodigal son has turned not only on the Miltablishment but also on the constitution and economy. Therefore the  new PDM government should be allowed to tackle the national crisis and “neutralise” the destabilising threat from Imran Khan without constantly looking over its shoulder for a conspiracy to oust it from office.

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.