Course Correction

Course Correction
For all intents and purposes, the “selected” prime minister, Imran Khan, is on a ventilator, fighting for his government’s survival. He has lost the confidence of a majority of the members of Parliament. Over a dozen PTI MNAs have openly revolted (more are said to be biding their time) and, despite threats and exhortations, have refused to return to the PTI fold. In the same manner, at least 15 MNAs from allied parties have admitted to stitching up agreements with the Opposition to join their no-confidence bid against Mr Khan. That means a vote of no-confidence is assured of success if the constitutional procedure is followed by the NA Speaker, Asad Qaisar, in the next seven days or so. But here’s the rub.

​Imran Khan, who never tires of taking the moral high ground, is determined to resist his ouster, never mind what the law and constitution say. The Speaker has used his discretion to delay the day of reckoning as much as possible and indications are he will continue to drag his feet. This includes conspiring with President Arif Alvi and compelling the opposition to approach the Supreme Court to clarify or restrict his rulings. This will entail further delays, as for example in the matter of the Presidential Reference seeking the SC’s opinion on the matter of “de-seating” for the term of this parliament or “disqualification” from parliament for life of MNAs crossing the floor.

​While the battle in parliament is joined by the government and opposition and spills over to the SC, Imran Khan is daily exhorting his supporters to reach Islamabad on March 27 for a “historic” rally during which he intends to spring a thunderous surprise to knock out the opposition. Since his ouster is now a legal and constitutional issue, he may be aiming to put public pressure on the SC to discard notions of “constitutional justice” and blackmail the Miltablishment to abandon “political neutrality”, and stand with him.

​This is a dangerous and risky strategy. The Opposition has already geared up to challenge his 27 March rally with its own in Islamabad on March 28.And there is no knowing how the Miltablishment will react to any attempt by him to embarrass, divide or belittle it on one ground or another, as for example by “de-notifying” the current army chief and “notifying” a new one, because any such move will be challenged institutionally in more ways than one. Therefore the stage could be set for a violent ending.

​There are some media reports that Miltablishment efforts are afoot to facilitate a compromise between the protagonists, to diffuse the situation in the national interest. The proposed formula would lead to elections later this year instead of next year under a neutral Miltablishment and stop the victimization of the Opposition by NAB, FIA, etc., in exchange for calling off the vote of no-confidence, thereby saving face for the government and opposition. We have learnt of discreet meetings between the top Miltablishment brass and the PM and President. The Allies of the government who are known as Miltablishment assets have not yet formally announced a parting of ways with the PTI government as though they are still waiting for some “signal” to spur them on or pull them back. The Opposition has delayed its march on Islamabad by two days and is now scheduled to hold its rally the day after Imran Khan’s rally instead of the same day as originally announced. The NA Speaker has postponed the date of moving the Opposition’s no-confidence resolution in Parliament from 25th March to 28th March. The Supreme Court doesn’t seem in any hurry to adjudge the matter of de-seating or dis-qualification of floor-crossing MNAs that could drastically impinge on the political future of the dissidents and sway the outcome of the no-confidence vote one way or the other. And so on.

​On the other hand, there are equally responsible media voices saying that Imran Khan will receive “knocks” in days to come that will fell him to the ground. This could be formal announcements by his allies that they have irrevocably joined forces with the opposition to automatically bring his government down. Or it could be court or Election Commission rulings that put him on the mat.

​Opposition leaders insist they have crossed the Rubicon and there is no chance of any compromise with Imran Khan because of the yawning trust deficit between them. He has lied through his teeth so often and taken so many U-Turns, they believe, that they are not even prepared to accept Miltablishment assurances on his behalf even if these were forthcoming. They say they will keep up the pressure even if Imran Khan survives this round for one reason or another. They simply cannot afford to let Imran Khan off the hook because they fear he will scupper parliamentary democracy, rig the next elections and set up a fascist regime. There is also a trust deficit between the Miltablishment and Imran Khan that has provided an opportunity to the opposition to bring matters to a head.

​While the civilians slug it out between themselves and the Miltablishment ponders the failure of its most recent hybrid regime experiment, the economy continues to plunge in the face of unprecedented inflation, unemployment, mass discontent and heartbreaking angst. This is threatening the very fabric of a country that is already grappling with terrorism and separatism and facing financial bankruptcy.

In the next few days, political confrontation will reach a climactic breaking point. The Opposition holds all the cards but Imran Khan is threatening to finesse the end-game with a secret Ace of Spades. In the final analysis, it is the Miltablishment and the Supreme Court whose decisions will tilt the balance. If both stay “neutral”, the country’s blundering course can be corrected by reinvesting in democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism.

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.