Pakistan Reader# 153, 23 February 2021
Will the opposition parties converge on the strategy of the no-confidence motion? Is the establishment ready to let go of Imran Khan or the opposition has misread the civil-military relationship?Rishab Yadav
The unity of opposition alliance in the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) seems to be dwindling in the second phase of the movement. The fractures within the PDM have emerged vis-a-vis the means to be pursued to achieve their goals. Both Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) and Jamat-Ul-Islam (F) (JUI- F) are in favour of mass resignations. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is not only apprehensive about mass resignation, understandably because it does not want to lose its hold over Sind. It also does not approve of the hard-line taken by Nawaz Sharif against the establishment (Imran Ayub, “PPP dangles threat of resignation, keeps its option open,” Dawn, 30 December 2020). Against this deadlock where future strategy seems uncertain, PPP has now suggested issuing a no-confidence motion against the Imran Khan and the Punjab provincial government (Noor Aftab, “PPP to muster PDM support for in house change,” The News International, 29 January 2020).
The suggestion for the no-confidence motion comes at a strategic time just before the Senate elections in March. Presently, opposition holds a majority in the Senate which it is likely to lose after the elections. However, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its allies still have a majority in the national and Punjab Assembly. If that is the case, then why is PPP suggesting a no-confidence motion? Does this mean that PPP is confident of the support from PTI’s allies? Or is this signal to the establishment that post-Imran Khan alternatives exist that does not include PML-N with full powers?
The numbers game
To pass a no-confidence motion requires the support of the majority of the members of the house. In a national assembly of 342 seats, at least 172 members must support it. Imran Khan’s government only has a razor-thin majority with 177 members in the national assembly. If both Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and Muttahida Quami Movement-P (MQM-P) decide to support the opposition, the government will be unable to prove the majority in the house. A similar situation exists in Punjab, where the PTI government’s majority hangs on the thread due to the support of PML-Q. Therefore, Bhutto’s proposal does not seem ludicrous. However, the larger question to ask is, why will both these parties support the opposition?
PTI and its fractured relationship with allies
Since coming to power PTI has had a troubled relationship with its allies. Last year, one of its allies Balochistan National Party-Mengal(BNP-M) decided to quit the coalition accusing the government of not honouring the pre-alliance promises (Amir Wasim, “Setback for PTI as BNP-M quits ruling alliance,” Dawn, 18 June). Both PML (Q) and MQM-P are unhappy over the political developments taking place in Punjab and Sindh respectively (Syed Irfan Raza, “Trouble for govt coalition as PML-Q skips lunch with PM,” Dawn, 6 November 2020). PML (Q) is dejected with the governance in Punjab and feels that the alliance is ruining the party’s image. This discontent became more pronounced when PML (Q) leader Moonis Elahi chose to skip the dinner hosted by the Prime Minister for the allies at the end of the last year (Faizan Bangash, “Alliance limited to vote, luncheon is not included: Moonis Elahi,” The News International, 6 November 2020).
MQM-P has also shown displeasure towards PTI for its lack of enthusiasm in fulfilling their demands. These demands pertain to finding missing party workers, accelerate the Karachi Transformation plan and recounting of the census. All the parties having stakes in Karachi have opposed the census because of undercounting the city's population (Razzak Abro, “Of census and delayed local government elections,” The Express Tribune, 2 January 2021). The census approved by the federal government also had a dissenting note by the MQM-P (Syed Irfan Raza, “Govt okays 2017 census results after three years,” Dawn, 23 December 2020). With CCI likely to approve the census, MQM-P will find itself in the precarious position due to the political matrix of Karachi (Kashif Abbasi, “CCI likely to approve Census-2017 on 27,” Dawn, 25 January 2021). The party has been losing its vote base due to the split and formation of another Mohajir Party Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) presumed to have the backing of the establishment (D. Suba Chandran, “Establishment’s Karachi-minus-MQM Plan,” NIAS, 14 November 2017). The entry of PTI in Karachi has also increased the competition for the MQM-P. Therefore it is not unreasonable to think that both PPP and MQM-P will be trying to make a deal to gain political dividends in the region.
Role of the Establishment
While both PML (Q) and MQM-P are dissatisfied with the ruling party, it is unlikely that they will go ahead in forging deals with the opposition without the approval of the establishment. Zardari also knows that a no-confidence motion is likely to fail without the tacit support of the establishment. It is also well known that the establishment would not want Sharifs in power. Therefore, the no-confidence motion is also a signal to the establishment that a solution to this crisis exists that does not bring establishment into the picture of hampering the political process nor does it allow PML-N to exercise full power.
Historically, the establishment and PPP have not had a cordial relationship with each other. However, during the rallies of PDM Bilawal Bhutto refrained from taking any hard line against the establishment and stuck to only criticising the government. Even during the Sindh IG crisis last year, Bilawal’s response was to call COAS Bajwa to take proper action against it. One should now wonder, what is PPP trying to propose?
First, a united national government headed by Bilawal Bhutto is both a fresh face and has an anti-corrupt image. Second, soften Nawaz Sharif's anti-establishment stance by making his party part of the national alliance and at the same time not giving much power to it. Third, initiate a dialogue involving all stakeholders about the role of the military in political affairs. Fourth, create a roadmap for the smooth transition process towards democracy. The last point would be in everyone’s mind after the coup in Myanmar.
The goal of PDM is to remove Imran Khan and to stop the establishment of meddling in electoral affairs. It is unlikely to achieve the former solely through street power and without the support of the establishment. The rallies of PDM moved the public sentiment against the government. It has, however, failed to create a crisis within the government and between the government and the military.
In the last 40 days, PM has met COAS and DG-ISI four times. However, civil-military relations are not at their best. The military too has shown discomfort against the government's failure at the economic and political front (Daud Khattak, “Are Imran Khan’s Days as Pak PM Numbered?,” The Diplomat, 21 April 2020). The no-confidence motion remains the only constitutional option to oust Imran Khan. It also comes with a risk. If failed, it will strengthen Imran Khan's position vis-a-vis the opposition and the military. Latter will find it difficult to remove him in future if he starts asserting freedom.
Implicit in Bhutto's signal to the establishment is also the idea that even if the opposition fails to remove the government, the movement will continue till the next elections. The support for political change will make it difficult for the establishment to get favourable results for themselves. And, also the winners will be looking to take a hard line on the establishment.
Finally, the questions that remain unanswered that will determine the fate of PPP’s proposal are, will the opposition parties converge on the strategy of the no-confidence motion? Is the establishment ready to let go of Imran Khan or the opposition has misread the civil-military relationship?
About the author
Rishabh Yadav is enrolled in the Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan at NIAS, Bengaluru. He has completed his MA in Politics (International and Area Studies) from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.