As political instability and economic downslide are growing with each passing day, October is going to be quite consequential for the country. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is also the most popular politician in the country at the moment, has finally announced that his much-awaited “long march” would start before the end of September. On the other hand, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is most likely to finalize the name of a new Army Chief in October.
The PTI’s long march and the appointment of the new Army Chief are issues upon which the future direction of Pakistan hinges. Insofar as the long march is concerned, the foremost questions are: whether the march takes place or if it would be successful or not? The benchmark of success of the long march would be the announcement of the election date in the country. This is the key demand of the PTI and Mr. Khan. The indicator of failure of the long march, again if it takes place, would be the federal government’s ability to quell the marchers and stop them from gathering in a huge number in Islamabad and that too for several days. If the long march fails, then the country would experience a tense-calm and elections may be held after August next year when the present National Assembly completes its term.
It is interesting to forecast that the long march, if it takes place, would have ample chances of success. There are several reasons for it. At the moment, Mr. Khan is pulling hundreds and thousands of people in his meetings across the country, particularly in cities and towns of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces surrounding the federal capital. It is expected that a huge number of people will participate in the long march, whenever it takes place. Secondly, the present 13-party ruling alliance, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has fared unprecedentedly poorly, particularly in arresting the economic rot. Consequently, Pakistanis have been faced with unprecedented inflation since the ruling alliance came to power on April 8 this year.
The unprecedented price hike has resulted in pushing millions of Pakistanis into abject poverty as their purchasing power has gone down significantly. In this situation, Mr. Khan has a very cogent reason to ask people to join his long march blaming the present ruling dispensation for the mess. Irrespective of Mr. Khan’s tirade against the ruling alliance, there is a lot of substance in the argument that the present set-up has performed below par in each respect of governance, whether political, administrative or economic. This poor performance has made the lives of all Pakistanis miserable while those of lower middle and lower classes unlivable. So, more and more people will join the long march.
The third important reason for the potential success of the long march is that the PTI has governments in Punjab and KP provinces. The two provinces, as mentioned earlier, surround the federal capital. The other side of the capital, which leads to the Azad Kashmir region, also has a PTI government. Thus, with governments in the three political units, it would be almost impossible for the government in the federal capital to successfully stop the long march. The PTI will have government resources of the three provinces and regions to make the long march a success. The point of concern for the federal government is that it relies on provinces for the supply of law enforcement personnel, as it has limited human and material law enforcement resources at its disposal. If the federal government calls for reinforcements from provinces, at least Punjab and KP would flatly refuse. The only way for the federal government will be to call for reinforcements from Sindh and Balochistan and that too by air because Punjab and KP provinces would not let armed policemen from the two provinces pass through their jurisdiction to reach the federal capital. If the situation happens, the role of the military would become that of the final arbiter. Obviously, the military will try to diffuse the situation anyhow as then it would be a matter of the country’s stability and integration of the federation. In this scenario, the settlement will be in negotiations for holding fresh elections before time.
However, as Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is retiring on November 27, the ruling alliance, specifically PM Shehbaz Sharif, who has the constitutional power to appoint the Army Chief, would have to finalize the next head of the army in October. Keeping in view the fluid political situation in the country and the threat of Mr. Khan’s long march, Shehbaz Sharif has to announce the name of the next Army Chief sooner. His reported consultation with his elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, having a legal status of a fugitive, on the appointment of the Army Chief has been criticized widely. Nawaz Sharif is a convicted criminal, who has fled the country by hoodwinking the state apparatus. More importantly, he has been a vehement critic of generals and their role in statecraft. According to the PTI, whoever Prime Minister Shahbaz appoints as Army Chief would become ‘controversial,’ not because of the person but because he is appointed by a prime minister, who has criminal proceedings pending in court against him while his coming to power has also been profoundly controversial.
In the ongoing power wrangling between the 13-party ruling alliance and the PTI, the economic crisis would get more aggravated and the sufferings of the majority of Pakistanis would multiply. From this morass, there would be no other option but to have prompt political stability in the country. While political stability in the short run is not possible, the beginning of the process of stabilization could only be initiated by calling fresh elections so that a party or a group of parties have a fresh mandate from the people to address huge challenges facing the country and society. Elections would have to be held sooner or later, therefore, both ruling alliance and PTI shall not make it an issue and compromise so that an earliest date for holding national polls could be announced, which would force political forces to concentrate on campaigning rather than indulging in a tug-of-war for power.