The Last Round

The Last Round
One respected newspaper called Imran Khan’s win in six recent by-elections a “stunning” victory. Absolutely Not! The conclusion was foregone for several reasons. The PMLN didn’t pull out the stops to contest in earnest because it was given to understand that the ECP intended to postpone the polls for a variety of reasons. Certainly, the ECP’s final decision came only days ahead of the scheduled date. By that time, Maryam Nawaz had already made plans to leave the country instead of canvassing and pulling the crowds as she has so successfully done in recent months. The PMLN also felt it was a waste of time, effort and money to contest these polls because they would make no difference to the numbers game in parliament. The fact that Imran Khan couldn’t hold on to any of the seats, and elections would have to be held again on all of them was not lost on anyone. The entrenched PTI government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was also expected to help Khan rout the likes of past due-date JUI and ANP contestants. This contest was in marked contrast to the earlier round of by-elections on 20 MNA seats which were swept by the PTI, partly because of disarray in PMLN ranks owing to bad choice of candidates and partly because of the unpopular economic hardships imposed on the electorate by the PDM government at the insistence of the IMF.

Much the same sort of misplaced enthusiasm was demonstrated by headlines that screamed popular “uproar” following the ECP’s decision to disqualify Imran Khan in the Toshakhana case. Nothing of the sort happened. A couple of hundred PTI loyalists scuffled with the police and then camped outside the ECP office for a few hours after the decision was announced. Across the country, scattered protests broke out with a few dozen or so protestors at every site burning tyres – a symbolic gesture – except in Karachi where over a thousand supporters screamed abuse at all and sundry.

To be sure, however, the main reason for the lack of widespread uproar was Imran Khan’s decision not to call for protests that night – ostensibly to conserve the energy of his supporters for the Long March – but to retreat to Bani Gala with his advisors to chalk out a viable strategy going forward, even though he admitted that he knew of the adverse decision beforehand. Indeed, that was a big reason for his continuing attack on the ECP and its chief. He was also assured that the decision is likely to be “stayed” quickly by the higher courts and poses no threat to his plans just as the recent by-election wins do not give him any advantage or leverage.

The big question is unaffected by such “positive” or “negative” developments. Should he opt for the promised “Long March” or not? He has been threatening it and postponing it constantly. On the one hand he admits that President Arif Alvi is negotiating on his behalf with both the Miltablishment and PDM to agree to a consensus candidate as the next army chief and a mutually acceptable date for general elections before the scheduled date late next year and doesn’t want to precipitate a crisis-conflict Long March that derails these talks without dislodging the government. On the other hand, he thinks that without the pressure generated by a mass protest march on Islamabad the PDM government and Miltablishment are not likely to concede anything significant. The problem with this way of thinking is that PDM and Miltablishment leaders have collectively dug their heels in and are in no mood to accept his demands unequivocally. But if the Long March option is finally and forcefully adopted, it is bound to lead to violence. That could be a trigger for regime change, certainly, but probably for military intervention for its own sake rather than for Imran’s, with unfavourable consequences for political leaders and parties.

It is significant that the army chief decided to announce his retirement five weeks hence on the same day the CEC announced its decision against Khan. But what the COAS said (off the record) about his experience at the hands of Imran Khan suggests that he and his close colleagues have had enough of him. Can anyone blame them? They put all their hybrid eggs in Khan’s basket and have been abused black and blue, however “noble” their intentions. But the usual conspiracy theorists will be inclined to suspect sinister designs if the next chief isn’t announced forthwith while Khan goes ahead and launches his march on Islamabad.

This is the last round. The Miltablishment, PDM and judiciary are all urging Imran Khan to return to parliament and resolve his issues at that forum. No one has a taste for destabilization of economy and polity at a time when the country faces the threat of financial default and continuing international scrutiny. Imran Khan’s enduring popularity with the rising urban middle-classes ensures his political future. But his stubborn refusal to accept the rules of the democratic constitutional game in which other political players are accorded a degree of legitimacy is a recipe for authoritarian one-party rule either by a civil or military dictator. This is an option that has consistently failed to deliver in the past and is a non-starter in the future.

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.