While the PTI-led government may be keeping a disgruntled opposition at bay, its hold on power depends on a greatly improved performance, argues Rahimullah Yusufzai
Pakistan’s political drama is still playing out as Imran Khan’s government continues to face pressure from an alliance of nine opposition parties led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), which recently staged a big protest in Pakistan’s federal capital and has now extended the campaign to the provinces to demand the prime minister’s resignation and a fresh election.
Though the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government has survived the protests and is in no real danger yet, it does seem to have weakened only 15 months after coming to power. Questions are now being asked about whether it can complete its five-year term, given that it depends for its survival on small parties that form part of the coalition government and are known to demand a heavy price for their support.
The government also came under pressure from the judiciary when the Lahore High Court allowed deposed premier Nawaz Sharif, convicted and imprisoned for seven years on corruption charges, to travel to the UK for urgent medical treatment, despite this invoking the prime minister’s displeasure. Imran Khan, who has always considered Nawaz Sharif his main political rival, even expressed doubts about the veracity of the medical tests, which showed the latter’s critical condition resulting from cardiac complications, diabetes and kidney disease. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the former ruling party led by Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, reacted angrily to this comment, saying the premier should be tried for delivering hate speeches. This demonstrates the intensity of confrontation between the PTI and PML-N, Pakistan’s two major political parties.
Despite Prime Minister Khan claim, on November 19, that his government had allowed Nawaz Sharif to travel to Britain on humanitarian grounds, in response to the recommendations of a board of senior doctors constituted by the provincial government of Punjab, and his insistence that there should be no politics concerning Sharif’s health, he was still upset by the Lahore High Court’s decision.
Moreover, the court overruled the government’s condition that Sharif should submit an indemnity bond of Rs7 billion before flying abroad, as a surety that he would return to Pakistan after undergoing treatment. In his comment, Imran Khan appealed to the chief justice and his successor, Justice Gulzar Ahmad, who is next in line to head the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to restore the public’s trust in the judiciary so that the weak, not just the powerful, get justice.
Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who is retiring from service on December 21, reacted strongly, advising the prime minister not to taunt the judiciary about powerful people, as only the law is powerful in the court. Khosa reminded the premier that he himself had given Nawaz Sharif permission to go abroad, while the Lahore High Court only settled the modalities of his departure. The country’s top judge maintained that the post-2009 judiciary is powerful as a result of the lawyers’ movement; it had convicted one Prime Minister (Yousaf Raza Gilani) and disqualified another (Nawaz Sharif) and was soon going to decide a high treason case against a former army chief, General (Ret’d) Pervez Musharraf. Denying that the courts represented only powerful people, he pointed out that Pakistan’s 3,100 judges and judicial magistrates ruled on 3.6 million cases, the majority of them concerning the poor and weak.
Prime Minister Khan knows he cannot afford to challenge the judiciary, which has grown increasingly influential over the last decade. Politicians have been approaching the superior courts to settle issues that are largely political, thus further empowering the judiciary. A serious case of foreign funding availed by his party, filed by a former PTI activist, is presently being heard by the Election Commission of Pakistan amid demands that it should be decided expeditiously. Such cases usually end up in the superior courts, putting further pressure on political parties.
However, the prime minister followed up his concern for vulnerable prisoners languishing in jail by issuing directions that they should be assisted to seek early release. A petition has also been filed in the Islamabad High Court, which directed that lists of prisoners who are ill should be prepared so that their cases can be reviewed. The relief given to Nawaz Sharif, who thrice served as prime minister and heads one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families, has opened a window of opportunity for the voices of other, much less powerful prisoners to be heard.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the Imran Khan government received a jolt when the head of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), retired Justice Javed Iqbal, warned that no one should think the country’s present rulers are exempt from accountability, as the cases of those in power for the past 12 months would now be investigated. He added that the NAB’s actions were not one-sided, as alleged by opposition parties, because the anti-graft body must first look into the cases of those who were in power over the past 30-35 years.
The challenge to the government from Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s protest campaign remains a concern. The Maulana, whose party was comprehensively defeated by the PTI in the July 2018 general election, spent more than a year trying to unite eight token opposition parties and persuade them to join the anti-government protests. He brought thousands of his party workers and supporters to Islamabad to stage a peaceful protest sit-in, or dharna, for two weeks. He called it ‘Plan A’ and warned that ‘Plan B’ and ‘Plan C’ would be tougher, culminating in the collapse of the PTI government.
Ultimately, his ‘Plan A’ did not work as the government felt confident enough to allow the protestors to enter Islamabad and then bound the JUI-F through an agreement not to allow its supporters to cross road barriers to reach the so-called ‘Red Zone’, where the most important government offices are located. To the JUI-F’s credit, it managed to keep the protestors peaceful and disciplined, despite the cold weather. However, the Maulana’s maximalist demands, calling for the prime minister to resign and hold a new election, were unacceptable to the government and were summarily rejected.
‘Plan B’ was next implemented The JUI-F – again with token representation from the other parties – started blocking highways and major roads in the four provinces to pressurise the government into accepting its demands. But instead, the blockade simply caused problems for the general public as scuffles erupted between the protestors and civilians. So ineffective was the protest, in fact, that the JUI-F had to abandon it.
Now it is holding consultations with the eight other opposition parties to start working on ‘Plan C’, under which anti-government public meetings would be organised across the country. There have also been reports that the demonstrators may court arrest as a mark of protest.
Having overcome the two-week long Islamabad dharna which was the biggest challenge to its rule, the Imran Khan government is confident it can handle other mass protests. It claims Maulana Fazlur Rahman left empty-handed after failing to dislodge the prime minister, and although the Maulana asserts that he was offered positions in the government and chairmanship of the Senate, there is no evidence yet that he was tempted in such a manner to help end his protest. He and Imran Khan remain bitter political rivals and there is no way they can compromise with each other.
For now, the protest is likely to fizzle out and the PTI to stay in power. However, the government will no doubt have to keep looking over its shoulder, keeping its prickly allies from the smaller parties happy so that they don’t abandon the ruling coalition.
What is more, the PTI government will need to perform better in order to stabilise the economy, reduce inflation, improve governance and fulfil its 2018 election campaign promises. It must also check any misuse of power and corruption by its ministers and advisors, as the NAB seems set to hold them to account for any misdeeds. Most importantly, Prime Minister Imran Khan needs to maintain his seemingly smooth working relations with the powerful military, as any mistrust between the two will not augur well for the future of the PTI government.