Talks to nowhere

FOR once it had appeared that the stalemate could be broken through negotiations. The two sides sat across the table last week to find some middle way to end the impasse. Hopes were raised when the first round ended on a promising note. Both sides reined in their vitriol for a while. The next round was supposed to discuss the date and the framework for nationwide elections. It seemed that sanity had finally prevailed. But it was not to be.

No sooner had the first round of talks ended than both the opposition and ruling coalition drew their respective red lines. All promises of flexibility and rationality were blown away with both sides returning to their hard-line positions. While Imran Khan said the ruling party should dissolve the National Assembly and the other two provincial assemblies before May 14 if it wanted polls to be held simultaneously, some PML-N ministers declared there would not be any compromise on the Assembly completing its term.

No middle way was in evidence. Apparently, the ruling coalition is not willing to hold elections before October, and the PTI, which seems to have already burnt its boats by dissolving the Punjab and KP assemblies, is not prepared to step back from its demand for early polls. Some remarks made by the ministers have made it apparent that the government was not really serious about a negotiated settlement on holding all elections together.

While the defence minister declared the talks an “exercise in futility”; another PML-N minister said there was no point talking to a “terrorist” group. Such comments have not helped in the creation of a conducive atmosphere for talks to succeed. Meanwhile, police raids on the residences of senior opposition leaders before the crucial round of talks have exposed the government’s insincerity on the matter.

The vitriolic statements made by PML-N leaders have vitiated the atmosphere further.

Undoubtedly, the PTI’s own rigidity and confrontational approach have also contributed to the stand-off but it is mainly the government’s responsibility to show rationality to defuse the situation. It is more in the government’s interest to reduce political polarisation. Unfortunately, that has not happened. In fact, the vitriolic statements made by PML-N leaders have vitiated the atmosphere further. The battle is back to the top court, which had originally nudged the warring sides to come to a compromise on holding elections.

Meanwhile, the fate of the May 14 Punjab Assembly polls hangs in the balance, presenting a serious challenge to the apex court’s authority. The court’s orders have already been defied by parliament, which has refused to release funds to the Election Commission to hold the Punjab election. It is impossible for the election watchdog to do its job without the funds and assurances of security on polling day from the government.

With barely a fortnight to May 14, there is no likelihood of the Punjab polls taking place, which may worsen the constitutional crisis and intensify political confrontation. Imran Khan has warned that his party would take to the streets if the Supreme Court’s order on holding polls in Punjab was violated. With no hope of talks on simultaneous elections going anywhere, the situation has reached a dead end.

Pitted against parliament’s defiance, the apex court, itself riven by internal discord, is in a serious quandary. Any action against the government for defying its order could have repercussions not only for the present dispensation but also the institution. Arguably, never before has a Pakistani chief justice faced such a crisis of authority.

This week, an eight-member bench has resumed hearing the petitions challenging a bill — which has since become an act of parliament — seeking to curtail the powers of the chief justice. In an unprecedented move, the court blocked the bill even before it was enacted. It has been argued that the legislation violated “a fundamental component of the Constitution” that ensured judicial independence. The preventive order has not only sharpened the conflict between the two pillars of state but has also drawn criticism from the bar. It has brought into question the legislative authority of the elected parliament.

In yet another development highlighting the division within the top judiciary, Justice Qazi Faez Isa, the senior puisne judge, has called immediately for a long overdue meeting of the Judicial Commission of Pakistan for the appointment of judges for two vacant positions. The top court is currently functioning with 15 judges against a sanctioned strength of 17. The controversy over the procedure of the elevation of judges to the country’s highest judicial body has also split the apex court. Justice Isa is a proponent of the seniority-based approach. Some have found it interesting that the meeting has been proposed at this point. The seats have remained vacant for many months now. Justice Isa has suggested the names of the chief justices of Sindh and KP high courts for elevation, which, it has been pointed out, is the chief justice’s prerogative.

In a recent TV interview, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has given an intriguing twist to the dispute over the election date, saying that the reason for the government not agreeing to a date for polls before September is the fear that the PTI, if it wins the elections, would extend the tenure of the chief justice. It’s one of those weird conspiracy theories that unfortunately has caused loss of rationality.

We are now witnessing a complete breakdown of the system as the ongoing power struggle threatens to bring down the entire structure. The situation is alarming, with every state institution having been sucked into a game of thrones. With Imran Khan now threatening to take to the streets, the country is on the brink of civil strife. By prolonging its stay in power, the ruling coalition is only aggravating the political and economic instability. It is best for it and the country to go for a fresh mandate. Delaying elections won’t solve anything.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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