South Asia

After the Pakistan Senate Elections, Imran-Bajwa Regime Faces the High Tide of Opposition

Although the results have fairly been consistent with the parties' strengths, the defeat of Imran Khan's party's top leader has strengthened the opposition camp to launch a fierce attack against the government.

We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

                                    ~ William Shakespeare 

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an umbrella group of several opposition parties, has pulled off an incredible rabbit out of its hat in the just-concluded elections to the country’s senate. The elections to the senate, which is the upper and permanent house of the country’s bicameral parliament, are held every three years when half the senators retire. Voting is indirect, with the respective provincial assemblies electing the senators for the provinces, and in the current instance, the results have fairly been consistent with the party positions there.

But the opposition alliance, which includes the three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), former President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI), and assorted Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties, has defeated the country’s finance minister in a crucial contest for the senate seat from the federal territory.

The PDM’s joint candidate and a former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has defeated the finance minister Hafiz Sheikh by a slim five-vote margin, depriving him of a win he desperately needed to continue holding the ministerial position, under the constitution. The opposition parties have been able to pool their own votes together as well poach a few – in a constitutionally permissible albeit tactically dubious manner– from the Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI).

The PDM has been agitating vociferously against Imran Khan’s government, which is widely seen as installed and propped up by the army, since October 2020. The three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif called out the incumbent chief of army staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa and the current director general of the Inter-services Intelligence (DGISI) Lt. General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry by their names for rigging the 2018 elections for Imran Khan and then perpetuating his disastrous rule.

Sharif’s daughter and his political heir-apparent, Maryam Nawaz Sharif as well as the head of the PDM, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, haven’t pulled their punches either. The junta, stunned by the unprecedented assault, has since been trying to counter the PDM narrative but has not been able to regain its footing.

Ordinarily, if a prominent politician had gone for the army brass’ jugular the way Sharifs and the Maulana did, they would have hounded them and their associates, smeared them as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam and banned them and their political parties for good.

Also read: In Pakistan, the Junta Hangs on to Its ‘Imran Khan Project’

Historically, the secular BalochPashtunSindhi or Muhajir leaders who questioned the army’s chokehold over the Pakistani state received all this treatment, and worse. But the present challenge comes from the leaders who also compete with the army on its own turf. The Maulana wears the religious Teflon on which the allegations of working for India, Israel or America, or on their behest against Islam and Pakistan, do not stick. But more importantly, it is the country’s most populous province, the Punjab that really matters to the junta. And the Sharifs are virtually the heartthrobs of that province. Punjab not only provides the army with the bulk of its officers and cadres but has also voted consistently for the PMLN for over a quarter century now.

For the first time in the country’s history, the type of sloganeering heard against a sitting COAS, who hasn’t overtly proclaimed martial law, in the streets of Punjab, has been deeply disconcerting for the army establishment. The junta, as keen as it is upon ruling, is also concerned about its image getting tarnished in Punjab, though not as much in other provinces. After all, the idea behind the Pakistani version of the Potemkin democracy has been to maintain a civilian façade while controlling all the levers of power. But, with Nawaz Sharif and his daughter essentially saying what the smaller provinces have been saying since the army first usurped power in 1958, the crisis is too close for its comfort. And with its usual weaponry of vilification, smearing and hate rendered ineffective, the army blinked. But it clearly did not want to concede more than it absolutely needs to.

Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, wave flags as they listen to their leaders during an anti-government protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan October 18, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro.

While the PDM has called for a complete and instant end to the army’s perpetual intervention in and control of the country’s politics, the junta’s Imran Khan project was supposed to last at least two parliamentary terms. The two are obviously irreconcilable positions. My own view – and their own stated position – has been that Imran Khan and General Bajwa are joint at the hip, and they will sink or swim together. The proposition would probably have held had the country’s economy not been in such shambles as it has been since Imran Khan was installed into power.

But, as Imran Khan turned out to be a much bigger master of a disaster than both his patrons and detractors thought, the situation became untenable. For the army to get the PDM off its back, it had to at least pretend that it is remaining above the political fray. It relayed to the opposition that it would remain neutral in the political process, especially in the senate elections.

The quid-pro-quo ostensibly sought was that the PDM would stop going after the top brass, all guns blazing. The junta, after playing hard to get for two-and-a-half years, suddenly appeared willing to play ball. The tactic serves multiple purposes for the establishment. It had been able to get postponed a protest march on the capital announced by the PDM, got the fiery rhetoric from the PDM’s pulpit mellowed down, tried to create a rift among the opposition parties, and bought the regime more time to gets its own house in order. To their credit, the opposition parties stuck together and compromised on the tactics, while leaving the strategy ambiguous but their objective clear i.e., to undo the damage done by the stolen 2018 elections. A faction of the PDM led by the PPP has been more active in this engagement, though other parties have their own channels open.

For the PPP, the senate elections, and especially the general seat from the federal capital, were supposed to be a litmus of the army’s impartiality. The winning candidate, Gilani had himself declared before the polls that he felt the army was staying neutral. But, while he was able to pull off an upset win, the thinner-than-expected margin of victory and the establishment’s machinations just hours before the voting suggest that it did not remain inert after all.

Another former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has asserted that the establishment’s henchmen went on dissuading the PMLN’s parliamentarians from voting for Gilani, the night before the polls. The results could have gone the other way, had it been any other candidate. Gilani, a savvy politician and a gentleman himself, carries tremendous goodwill across political lines, has family and personal ties to various voting blocks, and is generally not perceived as a radical anti-establishment man. The PTI’s internal dynamics, its choice of candidate and fielding him on the most vulnerable seat, contributed in a big way as well. Gilani’s win, and with a wafer-thin margin at that, does not mark a sea change in the army establishment’s approach to politics. At best, it shows the army’s willingness to accommodate politicians if they don’t challenge its self-anointed praetorian guard status, outright.

Now that the senate elections are done and over with; what’s next?

The prospect of a no-confidence motion 

The PPP’s co-chairman Asif Zardari had rightly convinced its partners in the PDM that senate being a permanent body, an elections boycott would give a virtual walkover to the PTI and the junta would get to stuff the house with its men. To that effect, the Zardari formula has been successful. While the PTI did gain a bunch of seats, the opposition parties counted together would still maintain a thin majority in the new senate. The wily PPP supremo had further envisaged a potential no-confidence motion in the national assembly to oust Imran Khan through an in-house rather than through agitation culminating in en masse resignations from the parliament which the PMLN and JUI wanted to do.

Also read: Pakistan: Is Political Change in the Air?

The Gilani victory is supposed to be a trial run for that, especially since the opposition needed to flip a few votes from the PTI or its allies, as it also would for the no-confidence motion. But while the PTI and its backers in the junta are down, they are not out.

No-confidence moves are never easy to pull off, especially since the one required for ousting a prime minister is by a show of hands and not a secret ballot. Also, while the parliamentarians are not constitutionally bound to vote along the party lines in electing the senators, crossing the floor in a no-confidence move are grounds for losing their seats. There has only been only one no-confidence move against a prime minister in the checkered parliamentary history of Pakistan, which was against the late Benazir Bhutto in her first stint in the office. But even that was defeated despite her being at loggerheads with the establishment and having a slim majority in the house.

Leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-InsafPakistan Democratic Movement gathered at a rally in Karachi against PM Imran Khan. Photo: Twitter.

The current chairman of the senate, who ironically had been elected to the office thanks to the PPP when the latter opposed the PMLN, survived a no-confidence motion in 2019, despite the opposition having superior numbers on paper.

The Gilani victory may have stunned Imran Khan – and his backers – but moving forward, he apparently does see a couple of options. He has swiftly announced to seek a vote of confidence, thereby preempting an instant no-confidence move that might have come his way. It was followed by a meeting with the COAS and the DG ISI, and then a televised rant. He appeared rattled and rambling, but the gist was that he is digging in. And the way the PDM leadership, especially from the PPP, are calling upon Khan to resign, it appears that a no-confidence motion isn’t in the works right away.

The PPP has already announced that Gilani will be running for the senate chairmanship, in the elections scheduled for March 12, 2021. It would be another test for the PDM and the Imran-Bajwa regime. If the PDM pulls off a win there, it would urge Imran Khan to quit and potentially bring the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan shortly thereafter.

But as stubborn as Imran Khan is, it is unlikely that he would heed any call for resignation. The upcoming vote of confidence by the show of hands is likely to go Imran Khan’s way and would afford him and his backers some time to recalibrate and regroup. A loss in the senate chairmanship elections would, however, damage him irreparably for multiple reasons, but especially for reinforcing the perception that he has lost the trust of his party and military patrons.

He could potentially exercise the nuclear option then and dissolve the national assembly, thereby thwarting a no-confidence move altogether and inducing new elections. While the PDM, especially the PMLN, has calculated that going to polls now or in the near future suits them, the snap elections would also allow the army brass to essentially go scot-free.

The PDM narrative, after all, hasn’t been just about getting new elections but stopping the army from heisting their results. Getting back in the game isn’t a big issue but resetting the rules of the game is. The army had happily let the PMLN and PPP play musical chairs by playing them off against one other from 1988 to 1999. Each party got the government for a couple of years in the rotation, thinking that they got the power, when actually it was the army that ruled uninterrupted. It took the parties another seven years to sign the Charter of Democracy, calling for an end to the army’s encroachment on and usurpation of every civilian domain.

Also read: Pakistan Debt Crisis Intensifies as Economic Mismanagement Continues Unabated

The PDM, especially Nawaz Sharif, has been rightly calling for the army to quit meddling in politics, do its job and let the civilians do theirs. And for that, they have received support from across the political spectrum the civil society and advocacy groups. Where once the Imran-Bajwa combine plotted to rule for a decade, the chinks in the armour have become so big and the hybrid regime so vulnerable that exit strategies are being mulled over. This won’t be the time for the opposition to relent and throw a lifeline to the junta. It must be held accountable for the misery it has inflicted on Pakistani people, be it by trashing the economy or by its dirty war against dissidents and activists.

The civilians have committed the mistake of appeasing the brass by letting it have the military courts, draconian cyber and electronic crime laws, unbridled powers in Balochistan and the former tribal areas, only to be shown the door at their whim. Getting into the high office shouldn’t be a priority but doing us without any preconditions ought to be one.

The army has always been willing to accommodate politicians if and when they do not question its preeminence in the so-called national security matters, which only the junta gets to define. In fact, the army establishment has even eased out dictators like Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Pervez Musharraf, when they became too big a liability for its image. However, it never allowed for them to be punished for the high treason they had committed, for that is an institutional, not an individual decision.

It is this institutional maleficence, questioning which gets politicians into trouble with the army. Yousaf Raza Gilani is not an ideologue but a traditional politician, but even he was disqualified on the flimsiest charges and ousted from the prime minister’s office, within a year after he had called the ISI out for acting like a state within the state and plotting a coup. Nawaz Sharif himself has been burnt thrice.

The political waters in Pakistan are turbulent but the PDM has a historic opportunity to take the tide and turn the political fortunes of the country for good lest it was to become another lost venture, another voyage into disillusionment.

The Imran-Bajwa duo can barely keep their head above water; they are more likely to sink than swim together. But it should not be just about ousting one, the other, or both, but about the army’s Bonapartist groupthink and how to restrain it. It was, therefore, heartening to hear Nawaz Sharif sticking to his guns in a post-election address and calling for the army to stick to his job defending the country. About time the civilians stopped giving army the rope to hang us all with.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki