May 2023

Locking political horns

Arshad Yusufzai highlights the antagonism between Pakistan’s ruling PDM and opposition parties over when to hold all-important elections in the key provinces of Punjab and KP

If anything is certain about politics in Pakistan, it is the ever-present uncertainty that often proves pundits’ forecasts wrong regarding the vicissitudes in Islamabad’s corridors of power.

In recent months, particularly since January, the ruling alliance of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, have locked horns in a battle that has affected everyone, including the country’s mighty and otherwise untouchable military, and its powerful judiciary.

Political instability is often one of the major factors behind economic instability. Currently, the most challenging and harmful issue for Pakistan, politically and economically, is disagreement by the government, the opposition and the judiciary over holding elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Constitutionally, elections have to be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the federal or provincial assemblies. It is clearly mentioned in the constitution that any force or entity creating hurdles to this will be violating the constitution. Under Article 6 of the Constitution of Pakistan, any such person or party is termed a traitor.

Chaudhry Pervaiz Ilahi, ex-Chief Minister of Punjab
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For over three months (or 90 days), Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces have been functioning under caretaker setups since ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan instructed his PTI chief ministers Chaudhry Pervaiz Ilahi and Mahmood Khan to resign from, respectively, provincial governments in Punjab on 14 January, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) on 18 January.

In both cases, governors of the said provinces should have been tried under Article 6 of the Constitution. Strangely, though, the role of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) is not clear in both cases, as it has instructed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold elections in Punjab province on 14 May.

Constitutionally, elections have to be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the federal or provincial assemblies

Despite taking guidelines from the same Constitution for a similar issue, no election date has been set in KP province by the SCP. Previously, unforeseen incidents, like the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, resulted in a short delay in elections due to national unrest. No doubt the security situation in KP is volatile and holding elections in such an environment would be very difficult. But the Constitution of Pakistan has no clear explanation for such a situation.

With 371 electoral seats, Punjab is the most populous and powerful provincial assembly. The PTI came to power there after the July 2018 general elections, and the province has remained a battlefield for rival political parties the PTI and PML-N. The PTI’s Usman Buzdar, who took charge as Chief Miniter of Punjab on 19 August 2018, resigned from his position on 28 March last year in an effort to diffuse tensions around a no-confidence motion against the then prime minister Imran Khan.

Buzdar was replaced as CM by opposition leader Hamza Shahbaz, son of the current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, on 30 April 2023. However, Hamza was ousted from the CM’s office on 26 July 2022 after the Supreme Court of Pakistan termed his election, and all orders he had given in his tenure, invalid and ordered him to be considered as never having been Chief Minister.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Punjab is the most populous and powerful provincial assembly

On 27 July, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, having gained majority votes in the provincial assembly, was officially declared the 19th Chief Minister of Punjab.

Although Pakistan’s Constitution decrees that elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of any assembly, unfortunately it is often treated as a nose of wax, to be moulded in any way with force. Pakistan’s 75-year history has some outstanding instances of bending the Constitution in one’s own favour to gain powers. In the past, military dictators have changed it through executive orders, or used the Supreme Court of Pakistan to delay electoral processes.

However, this is the first time in Pakistan’s history that Parliament and the Supreme Court are in confrontation over elections.

The PDM’s delaying tactics will prove deleterious to its reputation and those of the political parties behind this unconstitutional practice. People remember and curse military dictators for such tactics; but, going forward, the PDM parties could also receive such censure for their role in delaying the elections.

Experts believe that, like the PDM parties, the military establishment is not in favour of holding elections, particularly in areas where the PTI’s narrative is strong.

Another problem in which Pakistani politics has become mired during the past decade is mudslinging and slander, not just against political opponents but also institutions like Parliament, the military, judiciary and the media.

The practice of trolling, abusing and threatening rivals was started by PTI supporters during the rule of the PML-N between 2013 and 2018. But when the two main rivals switched benches in Parliament after the 2018 elections, the PML adopted the same tactic of mudslinging against the then ruling PTI and its alleged supporting institution, the military.

At that time, the PTI strongly defended the military. However, after April 2022, when the PTI again found itself in opposition, it alleged the military was behind their ouster and started campaigns maligning the military leadership and accusing it of bringing the PDM to power.

Without doubt, these campaigns have lowered the morale of the country’s military as it tries to counter the criticisms while facing increasing activism by terrorists from the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Similarly, the Supreme Court and its judges have not been spared from these smears.

Respect for these institutions is long gone, as criticism sinks to personal levels. PTI supporters appear to have no respect for limits that came into practice at the turn of the millennium.

PTI supporters’ disappointment is clearly due to the PDM’s delaying tactics in holding elections. The writing on the wall suggests that, if elections were held in due time, as per the constitutional guidelines, the PTI would win everywhere, and with wide margin.

KARACHI, PAKISTAN, NOV 24: A large number of vehicles gather at fuel station to fill petrol, in Karachi on Wednesday, November 24, 2021. The Pakistan Petroleum Dealers Association (PPDA) Wednesday announced to go on a countrywide strike from tomorrow (November 25) to register their protest at what they call low-profit margins.
The people believe PDM policies lie behind record price hikes for essential commodities, including food and fuel

The performance of the PDM government over the past year has resulted in the country’s worst ever inflation. All its economic measures have failed to provide any relief to the general population, which strongly believes that PDM policies lie behind the record price hikes for all commodities, including food, life-saving drugs, energy and fuel.

On the other hand, the PDM parties are well aware of their weak political position. Delaying elections until October 2023 is one of their top priorities, as they hope to secure loans from the International Monetary Fund and friendly nations, which, in providing some relief, might change the mindset of the masses. However, barring a magic wand, it will be a tough challenge for the government to turn the tide in their favour before October.

One recent and very important development on the political stage is the initiation of reconciliatory talks between the PDM government and the PTI. This is positive, given that previously neither side accepted the other’s position. There is some hope that the talks could lead to constructive decisions, of which the country and its people are in dire need. This is particularly true for the overwhelming middle and lower classes, who have suffered unimaginably during the last 12 months of political unrest.

We are also witnessing the formation of new groups of potentially winning horses and electable figures. Political parties, including ones in the government, have realised that they need to draft their own policies for the elections, no matter when those take place. They have started increasing efforts to communicate with electable candidates across the country in general, and in Punjab province in particular. The election dates fixed for Punjab are also crucial and any further delay could cause serious challenges for the PTI.

Although no definite date has been given for elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the political parties are gearing up for them. One major factor that could affect the polls in the troubled province bordering Afghanistan is the prevailing security situation. The outlawed TTP has been targeting security forces, the Frontier Corps and police personnel across the province on a daily basis. The security forces have clearly told the Supreme Court that providing security during the electoral process would be difficult, as they are engaged in battling the terrorists. Furthermore, the TTP has repeatedly asserted that they will target the security forces anywhere in the country, which could result in losses not only of security personnel on election duties, but also of unarmed civilians.

Arshad Yusufzai has covered the Afghan conflict and terrorism in Pakistan, worked as a communication expert with the ICRC in Pakistan, and advised the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue-Geneva on Afghanistan