Theatre of the absurd

THE events of the past week present a theatre of the absurd. Hours after Imran Khan announced his long-awaited decision to dissolve the Punjab Assembly, Punjab Chief Minister Parvez Elahi made it clear that he was not on board. Khan’s outburst against his erstwhile benefactor, former army chief retired Gen Bajwa, apparently was the reason for breaking his vows.

It may not be the end of the marriage yet, but a parting of ways seems imminent. The latest episode has given a new twist to the ongoing political soap opera. The wily chief minister is back, looking for a new bidder. Khan appears to have been checkmated but the game is not over yet. It’s another season of political wheeling and dealing; the outcome is uncertain.

Predictably, the PDM countered Imran Khan’s decision to dissolve the Punjab Assembly on Dec 23 by submitting a no-confidence motion against the chief minister. The five-day notice was too long, given the shifting sands of Pakistani politics. It was Imran Khan’s measure of last resort after failing in all his attempts to force early elections. His two attempts to storm the capital had failed to build up the desired momentum.

Khan played his last card, believing that the dissolution of the Punjab and KP assemblies could have a domino effect, forcing the PDM government to finally yield to his demand. In his hubris, the former prime minister underestimated the dissent within the ruling alliance in Punjab. The PML-Q, which holds the balance of power in the coalition, was clearly sceptical of the dissolution move.

The PDM seems to have taken full advantage of the widening gulf in the Punjab ruling coalition.

There have also been reports of reservations among some PTI provincial legislators on the timing of the dissolution just a few months before the end of the assemblies’ terms. There were some other elements too at play that Khan may have overlooked in his desperation. The move to dissolve the two provincial assemblies was not so simple as the PTI leader might have thought.

Parvez Elahi was not going to sign his own death warrant. He knew his utility for the PTI would come to an end with the termination of the provincial government. Khan’s tirade against the former army chief provided an excuse for him to vent his own dissatisfaction with the decision. The PDM seems to have taken full advantage of the widening gulf in the Punjab ruling coalition.

It was a well-calculated step by the PDM parties to submit the no-confidence motion against the provincial government, that followed the governor asking the chief minister to seek a vote-of-confidence from the House, days before Khan’s deadline for the dissolution of the assembly.

The objective is to thwart the PTI’s move. While the question of validity of the governor’s advice could lead to a prolonged legal battle, it would still serve the PDM’s purposes.

There may be an element of truth to the speculation that the PDM’s move has the tacit support of the chief minister as it could save him from dissolving the provincial assembly. Nothing is surprising in this game of thrones. The role of the security establishment, despite its claims of staying ‘neutral’, remains ambiguous.

The chief minister’s reported dash to Rawalpindi before his controversial TV interview in which he blasted the PTI chief for criticising Gen Bajwa raises questions about the military’s position in the whole affair.

Parvez Elahi has tacitly confirmed his continued links with the security establishment and indicated that the powerful institution would not like further destabilisation. It’s apparent that the chief minister won’t move without the security leadership’s nod.

Imran Khan’s unrelenting bashing of the former army chief has certainly not helped him build bridges with the new army command. Indeed, the PTI leader has been critical of the alleged role of the former army chief in his government’s ouster, but his tenor has become much more scathing after the change of guard in the army last month.

In his public address last week, when he announced the dissolution decision, Khan went further in his attack on Gen Bajwa, holding him solely responsible for everything that went wrong under his government.

It also marked a shift in his narrative of ‘regime change’. There is no more mention of a ‘foreign plot’; it’s only the former army leadership that ‘conspired’ to oust him from power and install the PDM government. This change of tenor contradicts the hybrid rule that had marked his government.

Imran Khan is now trying to reinvent the events that marked his less-than-four-year term in office. It is undeniable that the PTI government was propped up by the security establishment. The fingerprints of the security agencies were all over the former administration. The institution’s deep involvement in politics had distorted the entire democratic process.

Of course, the former army chief is responsible for many things that have gone wrong in the last few years, including his role in strengthening hybrid rule. But it is also a fact that Imran Khan was the main beneficiary of that arrangement. His latest harangue reflects the frustration of a politician who totally relied on military support and is now angry at being abandoned.

There is no indication yet that Imran Khan has really learnt any lesson from his experience. His belief in the democratic political process remains questionable. There is no denying that calling for early elections is a democratic demand. But he should fight his battle in elected democratic forums, instead of waiting for some outside intervention.

Whatever happens in the next few days is not likely to bring any political stability to the country. Even if the PTI succeeds in dissolving the Punjab and KP assemblies, it will not necessarily lead to general elections in the country.

There is no likelihood of the federal government agreeing under pressure to dissolve the National Assembly. The major concern is that it could sharpen political polarisation in the country. It is an extremely alarming situation for a country on the brink of sovereign default and facing increasing militancy. This theatre of the absurd is a bad omen.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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