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Analysis Democracy Governance Politics

Will Imran Khan Dissolve National Assembly Before 2021 Budget Session?

After losing the general Senate seat from Islamabad to former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Imran Khan immediately sought a vote of confidence from the National Assembly. Gilani defeated the PTI candidate, then-finance advisor Dr. Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, by 169 votes to the latter’s 164. The hope was that a vote of confidence would solidify Khan’s position on the treasury benches until August this year, though legal experts say otherwise. That vote was held under Clause 7 of Article 91 of the Constitution of Pakistan, after the requisite notification was issued by president Arif Alvi. This exercise was entirely different than the procedure for a no-confidence motion as stipulated in Article 95 of the Constitution.

But according to Article 58 of the Constitution, the prime minister may advise the president to dissolve of the National Assembly; a lacuna he is expected to exercise if his government fails to pass the upcoming budget. The inability to pass this money bill would imply that the PTI government has lost the majority in the lower house of Parliament. In such a case, Khan would be hard pressed to either submit his resignation (under Clause 8 of Article 91) or recommend the assembly be dissolved before a vote of no confidence is moved against him as per Article 95; the latter resolution would constitutionally prevent him from advising the dissolution of the National Assembly.

Governing alliance on tenterhooks

The PTI majority in the 342-member house is 176: the party itself has 155 legislators, while its allies make up the rest. A further three independents may also be added to the treasury’s numbers. The opposition has 162 members, and the PPP is poised to add another member to its ranks with its victory in the NA-249 by-election. So PTI coalition partners such as MQM (with 7 members) and PML-Q (with 5 members) are in an ideal position to barter their votes on the budget with concessions like cabinet positions and budgetary allocations. The PML-Q is also a critical coalition partner in the Punjab Assembly with 10 seats holding the PTI provincial government’s 192-seat majority at bay from the opposition’s 172 seats.

In fact, the MQM has demanded that Karachi’s woes be addressed before they are offered an additional federal cabinet portfolio. While the PML-Q – which had been promised a cabinet ministry for Moonis Elahi – is demanding direct control over the outlays of grants to be announced in the Punjab budget for a number of districts. Needless to say, prime minister Imran Khan’s customary obstinacy means the governing party might not be able to exhibit the tact and sensibility required for these complicated political negotiations.

Et tu, JKT?

It is not just the PTI’s allies, but also members of the PTI itself, that Imran Khan must worry about. Pronouncements by Jehangir Khan Tareen – considered the kingmaker behind the manifestation of a PTI federal government in 2018 – and the coalescence of a number of PTI MNAs and MPAs around him as he approached the courts for pre-arrest bail point to possible abstentions becoming all the more likely. It is no secret that Tareen, though himself disqualified from holding public office, was among Khan’s most trusted political confidants before their squabble came out in the open.

Tareen was personally responsible for a number of MNAs and Punjab MPAs joining the PTI in 2018; them putting their eggs in Tareen’s basket is indicative of how these legislators are also unable to deliver anything substantial to their electorate due to the dynamics of PTI as a political party in government – woefully disconnected and evidently blasé about their mandate and responsibilities. It is speculated that Tareen commands the support of almost a dozen MNAs and nearly 22 legislators of the Punjab assembly. Communication between Khan and Tareen before Ramadan, and the appointment of Senator Ali Zafar as a ‘supervisor’ for the cases that Tareen is facing, may have eased the pressure for now. But since Tareen faces accusations of money laundering – now subject to stricter punishment due to FATF regulations – the scales may tip against Khan at any moment. PTI MPA Khurram Laghari has claimed that Tareen is supported by 70 MPAs in the Punjab assembly who may be out to exact revenge by stalling the budget.

Tareen’s coterie of adherent legislators might also be supplemented by other MNAs who are tired of being used as rubber stamps by the PTI for sustaining its government full of unelected advisors and special assistants. While their requests and demands may be falling on deaf ears, they are not entirely wrong in their assertions that they – as members of Parliament – should be considered for cabinet offices with precedence over unelected party stalwarts and technocrats. In fact, one could even argue that they deserve ministerial appointments especially before those ‘friends of Imran Khan’ whose tenures of incompetence, poor performance and zero delivery have to be extended after every six months.

Who cares about the budget?

As is apparent, the ‘numbers game’ in the National Assembly doesn’t seem geared to Imran Khan’s comfort. Added to this, the combined opposition would ensure that the budget session witnesses an inordinate amount of disruption and ruckus. Despite the positive indications from macroeconomic projections that government spokespersons boast about every now and then, the ground reality is that the national economy is defined by widespread unemployment and wanton inflation, both of which have immensely burdened the general public and elicited an uncharacteristically harsh response from them vis-à-vis Khan’s governance over the past three years or so.

‘Saaf chali, shafaaf chali’…

While the anti-corruption or ‘accountability’ drive continues to target Khan’s political adversaries with varying alacrity, the degrees of financial malfeasance, moral turpitude and criminal inefficiency in the bureaucracy have only gotten worse. It may be argued that the mandarins have stopped working because of their fear of NAB targeting them for ‘just doing their job’ – an inadvertent but subtle admission of what they think ‘their job’ really is – but Khan’s claims that he would put an end to corruption through his ethical leadership have also proved hollow. In fact, if for instance a hundred rupees were previously demanded as bribe, now the insistence is for double or even triple the amount, because ‘Khan is watching’: so more money will be required to get the job done and also evade the anti-corruption champion of Bani Gala.

Technological innovations such as the Citizens Portal, though well-intentioned and urgently required, have failed to yield the desired results or even make a dent. In his virtual meeting with Pakistani ambassadors posted around the world, the prime minister himself acknowledged that complainants were effectively being shooed away with standard bureaucratic jargon that gives the impression that they have done something when, in fact, they have done nothing and will do nothing. So just because Imran Khan himself isn’t corrupt, or isn’t directly engaging in any corruption, does absolutely nothing for the populace at large that continues to suffer at the hands of decrepit administrative structures manned by bureaucrats with a colonial mindset and misplaced superiority complexes.

The fact of the matter remains that current account surpluses or improvements on a global index do not directly impact the average Pakistani’s life, but rising indirect taxation on fuel, edibles, electricity and other essential commodities does inflict a heavy cost on the general public’s purchasing power. The elation and hope that the Pakistani citizenry felt in 2018 has, nearly three years later, transformed into utter hopelessness and desolation: even Khan’s statement of ‘ghabraana nahi hai’ (“do not despair”) has become a sarcastic remark to introduce some levity at the deplorable state of affairs.

A new opening batsman

By losing the Senate general seat, Imran Khan was forced to remove his de-facto Finance Minister at the time, Dr. Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and replace him with another technocrat, Shaukat Fayyaz Ahmed Tarin. While Khan could only appoint either of them as advisors since they are not members of Parliament, it bears mentioning that both have served as Finance Ministers during the PPP government of 2008-2013. Shaukat Tarin has promised to revitalize the economy by focusing on public sector development, suppressing the inflationary layers of middlemen in the nation’s agricultural supply networks, and to rejuvenate economic growth trends by emphasizing industrial consolidation and facilitating the services sector.

His most important task, however, would be to solicit support from the opposition parties, with whom he confidently boasts of having ‘working relationships’. Needless to say, he will have his work cut out for him: with the economy tanking and confidence close to collapse, the democratic opposition has no incentive to enable or salvage Khan’s government.

Hazard alert

The real danger to Khan may not even be posed by the PDM, still led by the wily Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman who is attempting to inject new energy into the opposition movement and trying to bring the PPP and ANP back into the PDM fold. Both these opposition juggernauts were at each other’s throats after the NA-249 by-election, spewing vitriol against each other that invoked reminiscences of the 1990s and making the reunion on the PDM platform all the more unlikely – though not totally impossible.

The true peril to Khan’s government, for the budget session and even afterwards, is from Shehbaz Sharif, the nominal president of the PML-N and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly – what developed democracies would consider a ‘shadow prime minister’. After nearly eight months in incarceration, Shehbaz Sharif, himself a former chief minister of Punjab, was released on bail and allowed to go abroad by the Lahore High Court, ostensibly for overdue medical treatment, but was prevented from boarding his flight as the relevant court orders had not been transmitted to the immigration authorities. Even though the PML-N sees the move as high-handedness and contempt of court on part of the PTI government, well-placed informants claim that an entirely different game is afoot.

Sources have reported that in his abortive London trip, Sharif was also planning to meet his elder brother Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N supremo, to try and convince him to fully empower Shehbaz as the party president: by implication, such a move would somewhat sideline Maryam Nawaz, the party vice president who currently pulls all the strings by virtue of being Nawaz Sharif’s daughter. It is even believed that, in Shehbaz’s absence, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was being circulated especially by Maryam as Imran Khan’s replacement, should the PDM succeed in dislodging the PTI government. Those plans, along with the PPP-PML-N alliance on the PDM platform, have also come to naught.

By continuing to stay in Pakistan, Shehbaz would be able to regain control of party MNAs and also extend his sway over other opposition legislators, with or without the PDM platform. His engagements with a number of foreign envoys, including the Chinese and British ambassadors to Pakistan, since his release from jail also points to him being involved in a transcendent level of ‘wheeling dealing’. While he may not be able to wrest Maryam’s grip over the party by himself, his stature and perspicacity is enough to ring alarm bells for Imran Khan. By further restraining Shehbaz through an appeal to the Supreme Court against his release, the PTI may only be giving him more political legitimacy, while simultaneously endearing him to the PML-N leadership and to a voter base who continues to fondly remember his tenures as chief executive of Punjab province.

In-house change on the cards?

Shehbaz Sharif’s political acumen and governance experience aside, it is understood that he still enjoys cordial relations with the ‘establishment’ despite his elder brother Nawaz’s taunts and tirades. Shehbaz’s son Hamza Shahbaz, the incumbent opposition leader in the Punjab assembly, remains a more viable candidate for the second generation of PML-N leadership than Maryam, considering that he spearheaded the party’s triumphant performance in Punjab against all expectations during the 2008 general elections. Hamza has also spent twenty grueling months in prison thanks to the PTI, even though legislators receive a modicum of consideration and exemption – if not immunity – under the law. While the PML-N vote bank is considered intertwined with Nawaz’s cult of personality, it is equally important to note that Shehbaz and Hamza have efficiently consolidated it in the party’s bastions of central and urban Punjab. Moreover, Nawaz must also recover from the damage that his absence from Pakistan may have caused.

The PPP would have serious reservations with Shehbaz Sharif due to his past rhetoric against former president Asif Zardari and others, but a reconciliation could be arranged for both parties to set aside egos and work together in order to rescue the national economy. Naturally, this depends on the dispensation and foresight of Zardari, informally known as the ‘king of reconciliation’ in contemporary Pakistani politics. In this particular equation, Zardari holds all the cards. If it is argued that the ‘establishment’ would use and abuse both Shehbaz and Zardari, then it must also be posited that the powers-that-be require a serious and workable alternative to Imran Khan, who fails to be jolted to reality and refuses to jettison the cabal of misfits and invalids that he has surrounded himself with. Obviously, the outcome will be determined by how each side plays its hand.

Given Shehbaz Sharif’s alleged coziness with the ‘establishment’, it is quite possible that PTI faces a much tougher adversary in the form of Shehbaz. If the required support from the PPP and other opposition legislators is secured for his leadership, Shehbaz could finally emerge as a viable alternative: not only to Imran Khan in the short term, but perhaps also to Nawaz Sharif in the long term. And with all the internal pressures in the national assembly as well as the Punjab assembly at boiling point, it becomes all the more likely that the PTI could face the fight of its political life in the National Assembly during the 2021 budget session.

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