The recently held election for the Senate and the opposition parties’ decision to postpone their much-touted “long march” are extremely important political developments, which would have far-reaching consequences for the corridors of power in the country.
The decision of the opposition parties’ umbrella anti-government alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), to put on hold the long march, which it had announced for March 26, was quite expected and it was a direct consequence of the recently-held Senate election. In the election, the coalition government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Prime Minister Imran Khan not only got a near majority in the Upper House but was also able to elect its men as chairman and deputy chairman of the Senate of Pakistan. It was partly possible because some of the opposition members of provincial assemblies and afterwards Senators voted for the government candidates. It triggered a blame game among the opposition parties. In particular, the resignation from national and provincial assemblies had become a litmus test for the commitment of leaders of the PDM. Clearly, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) refused to comply with the demands of other parties, including the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), on the issue of resignations. The logic behind the PPP refusal was that the party has its government in Sindh province, the second largest among the federating units, and a good number of Senators. Whereas, the PML-N may have a large number of MPAs in the Punjab but it does not have a government there while the JUI-F has a miniscule representation in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies.
The argument of PDM head Fazl that there was no need for a long march without resignations is quite potent as it was the only way to put some irresistible pressure on the PTI government. However, it was like a political gamble that if the government had been able to resist the pressure, then the opposition parties would have lost their presence in the provincial and national legislative assemblies. Thus, with the postponement of the PDM would-be long march, the PTI government has gained a lot of strength and now it seems that it would be relatively easy for PM Imran Khan to complete his five-year tenure. Imran Khan has also started sensing that he now has an easy field to work on and, therefore, he said recently that it was the time for the government to deliver.
It is important to note that as the Senate election has improved the PTI’s position politically, therefore, chances that the ruling party MPs would quit the party have become negligible. In fact, quitting the party or a change of political loyalties is proscribed under the relevant laws, like the Political Parties Act. One way of escaping the laws while changing political loyalties is the creation of a “forward bloc” by a sizable number of party MPs. There were apprehensions that scores of PTI MPs would vote against the party, especially when the ballot to elect Senators was constitutionally secret.
The win in the Senate and the vote of confidence by PM Imran Khan would have a strong impact on his coalition partners. The foremost reason is that the ruling alliance’s MPs would now feel confident that their government is not going down and they don’t need to change political loyalties. Similarly, the PTI’s allied parties, like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) and above all Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), would now realise that continued support to the PTI is more beneficial politically than to join the opposition ranks. The vote of confidence does have a very strong impact on political stability. When the March 12 elections for the Senate chairman and deputy chairman were held, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s nominees, Senator Sadiq Sanjrani (from allied party BAP) and Mirza Afiridi (Independent), won despite the fact that the ruling alliance was short of a majority.
Noticeably, there have been rumours and proposals from the opposition and certain elements within the security establishment about replacing PM Khan with someone else from within the PTI as prime minister. In this connection, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is also the second-in-command in the PTI, has been mentioned. The opposition wanted to drive a wedge in the PTI as Qureshi has strong opposition within the party and arguably not that obstinate as has been Imran Khan on the issue of corruption by past governments, led by key figures of the PDM. Now analysts as well as the PTI MPs are of the view that there is no chance that PM Khan could be replaced by someone else from his party.
Arguably, the most important consequence of the Senate elections, the PM’s fresh vote of confidence and the postponement of the PDM’s long march would be curtailed chances of early elections. The probability of early elections in Pakistan is still there but it would depend upon different reasons. First, if the PDM succeeds in mounting irresistible pressure on the government through street protests. The opposition had already announced a long march from March 26 to bring down the PTI government, which has been put off. But the opposition can still go for it. In the situation, the security establishment would also decide whether to ask PM Khan to step down or not. There was also a possibility that PM Khan would resign. However, it could have been a political suicide at a time when the performance of his government leaves a lot to be desired.
The PDM has put off the long march, thus putting irresistible pressure on PM Khan now does not arise. In the situation, the security establishment cannot ask PM Khan to resign and call early elections.
Now the prospect of any patch-up between the PTI government and the PDM leadership has almost vanished. There is no possibility at all that PM Khan would give NRO-like relief to the opposition. He has himself time and again and unequivocally said that he would never give an NRO to the opposition. Although he is known for taking “U-turns” on his stated positions, yet one thinks that he would not compromise on the issue because he does not have a majority in the parliament and he cannot expect to win in the next elections by giving up the stand. Whatever support the PTI and Imran Khan have among Pakistanis is not due to his governance or performance but the belief that he is the most honest politician. The support base of Imran Khan is still quite intact in the public.