December 27, 2022
ISLAMABAD – PAKISTAN’S largest province and political heartland continues to be in the throes of a crisis with the coalition government at the centre and the PTI-backed chief minister locked in fierce confrontation.
The latest act in this political drama began with opposition leader Imran Khan’s announcement that he would ask his ally in Punjab and government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to dissolve the two provincial assemblies to force PDM into holding early elections — his long-standing demand. He also announced a date for this, Dec 23.
Chief Minister Parvez Elahi went along grudgingly with this decision even though in a subsequent press conference he claimed 99 per cent of people in the country were opposed to dissolution and the ‘establishment’ wanted the present political process to continue.
In his presser, Elahi assailed Khan for his public criticism of his one-time benefactor, former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. He recalled what Bajwa had done to aid PTI’s ascent to power and said it did not behoove Khan to be ungrateful.
This open criticism of Khan and expression of reservations about dissolution conveyed the impression that there could be a parting of ways between the two allies. That, of course, didn’t happen. Elahi’s posturing may have had more to do with bargaining for a better deal with PTI for ‘seat adjustment’ for the next election.
Meanwhile, the PDM government launched a series of moves to avert the possibility of dissolution. Their members in the provincial assembly moved a motion for a no-trust vote while the governor asked the chief minister to seek a vote of confidence.
Sure enough, the speaker ruled the governor’s order unconstitutional and Punjab descended into political and constitutional chaos. The governor ‘denotified’ the CM and Punjab cabinet and the dispute inevitably landed up in the Lahore High Court, which restored Elahi till the next hearing.
These developments in Punjab, which has been in an unsettled state for the past eight months, have destabilised not just the province but also the country. They have paralysed the most populous province and plunged Pakistan into uncharted territory.
More significantly, the uncertainty that has been unleashed is having an adverse impact on the economy, already teetering on the brink of insolvency. More political turmoil will exact an even heavier price on the economy.
The question then is whether calling general elections can be a way out of the political crisis and bring an end to the instability being witnessed today, especially in the midst of a deteriorating economic situation.
Will early elections end the country’s political crisis?
For elections to resolve the present crisis and establish political stability, several things will need to happen. It is by no means clear whether this will be the case. First and foremost, there would have to be agreement between the principal political rivals on an interim government, at the federal and provincial levels.
Agreement on who should head a neutral caretaker government to oversee elections is a constitutional requirement under Article 224.
In the absence of consensus between the government and opposition on an interim set-up, the matter would go for decision to a parliamentary committee. If that fails to reach agreement, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will have to make that call, under the constitutionally prescribed procedure (Article 224-A).
Second, political leaders would have to accept the ECP as constituted at present and show confidence in its ability to hold free and fair elections. The ECP is an independent constitutional body responsible for organising and conducting elections.
The problem arises because Imran Khan has constantly attacked the chief election commissioner and the ECP, accusing them of being biased against him and partial towards his opponents. This without producing a shred of evidence to back his charge and despite a series of decisive victories by his party in successive by-elections.
Khan clearly cannot have a CEC — a constitutional office — of his own choice. Therefore, he or anyone else who questions the ECP or the CEC’s neutrality, would have to set aside their objections and accept the present electoral set-up and arrangements for elections to go ahead.
Three, political leaders and parties have to accept prevailing election laws and rules and code of conduct and also agree on the rules of the road leading up to polls. These are explicit, constitutionally mandated, codified and amended over time to define how elections are to be held. This obliges candidates to abide by them to ensure peaceful, free and fair elections.
Four and most important, for elections to be a stabilising factor for the country, major political parties and political contenders must be ready to accept the outcome, whatever it turns out to be. Unfortunately, the past is not encouraging on this count as just about every election result has been disputed in Pakistan’s chequered political history. In 2013, when Khan’s PTI lost to the PML-N, he alleged vote rigging and called the general election the “biggest fraud” in the country’s history.
He demanded an investigation into the alleged ballot fraud, held protests and a prolonged dharna in the capital for over four months. Eventually, a judicial commission was appointed after agreement between the PML-N government and PTI to investigate the allegations. Its report found no evidence of systematic rigging, only local irregularities, which Khan was forced to reluctantly accept.
When Khan won the 2018 elections, both the PML-N and PPP accused his party, aided by the establishment, of widespread rigging. Throughout the 1990s, the PML-N and PPP took turns to accuse each other of winning by fraudulent means. This troubled history throws up an unanswered question — will all political competitors accept the outcome of future elections?
Finally, given the perilous state of the economy political leaders should be ready to accept and support rather than stoke controversy over urgent steps an interim government may need to take during its brief tenure to avert a financial collapse.
Although the caretaker government’s principal responsibility will be to supervise free and fair elections it may have to take measures to deal with an economic emergency. After all, unless the country’s economic survival is assured everything else will be in vain.