A reversal of roles

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By: Imtiaz Alam

In a hung parliament, our hero Imran Khan is going to face a grand alliance of a formidable opposition. With a lead of almost four million votes over the PML-N, thanks to the absence of Nawaz Sharif and the timidity displayed by Shahbaz Sharif, Imran Khan’s PTI won 116 NA seats as compared to a broken-hearted PML-N’s 64 NA seats. A swing of 14.95 percentage points in favour of the PTI resulted in a gain of 81 NA seats and a reverse swing of 8.37 percentage points of the PML-N resulted in the loss of 82 NA seats. So the gains and losses of the two parties are equally proportionate.

In the 2013 elections, the PML-N got about double the votes (14,874,104) against both the PPP (6,911,218) and the PTI (7,678,954). In a lower voter turnout of 51.77 percent in 2018, as compared to a 55.02 percent turnout in 2013, the PTI gets the highest mark with 16,886,793 votes (approximately 31.87 percent) probably due to 14 million new voters, the PML-N gets 12,935,236 votes (approximately 24.40 percent) and the PPP gets 6,913,410 votes (approximately 13.5 percent).

The anti-incumbency factor did play a decisive role in the result: 57 percent of former MNAs (192 in number) have failed to make it to the lower house, with the highest proportion from Punjab and that too from the PML-N (109 MPs). The less than five percent margin of victory in 88 NA seats shows a close contest in 33 percent constituencies. This time there was a much higher proportion of rejected votes, greater than the margin of victory in 169 national and provincial constituencies.

Despite the PTI’s phenomenal rise, much more than what was being projected, the next National Assembly is almost equally divided with Imran Khan leading with a razor-thin majority or a minority government. Suddenly, we see the always-on-the-front-foot Great Khan hibernating behind the high walls of his luxurious estate in Banigala. His real-politic operator Jahangir Tareen is jet-setting around the country to win over the independents and ragtag parties that his leader had lamented so vociferously, to reach the magic number of 172 for a simple majority in parliament. The post-electoral scene is quite comic, if not tragic, for the would-be-grave-diggers of the much maligned ‘status-quo’. In the bazaar of horse-trading, political understandings have been reached with as diverse a group as from the “robbers of Gujrat” to the “murderous swindlers” of Muttahida and from bloody turncoats to bottomless independents. The purity of the ‘Insaf revolution’ is being sacrificed at the altar of power at all cost.

In a stunning metamorphosis of abusive populism, the prime minister-in-waiting in his maiden speech to an expectant nation spoke in an unusually soft tone and, instead of repeating his resolve to send the corrupt to the gallows, almost offered carte blanche to his opponents. Probably burdened with the high hopes of his admirers, Khan came up with ambiguous remedies to meet popular expectations. It is easy to lambast former regimes when in opposition, but it is hard to find ways to deliver on high promises in an adverse financial situation. The dilemma of this reformation regime is that if it tightens the fiscal belt further, it pours cold water on the 100-day lucrative promises is made. If the regime doles out favours to alleviate the high expectations it had been raising for years, it is condemned to an extremely bad economic situation. In denunciation of the pledge to break the begging bowl, Imran Khan’s pragmatic corporate manager Asad Umar has already indicated a loan of up to 12 billion US dollars – maybe even from the IMF.

If at all the sombre economic environment were not enough to dampen the Insaf revolution, an aggrieved opposition took no time in not only questioning the legitimacy of the mandate of prime minister-in-waiting but also in forming a grand opposition alliance even before a minority government has been installed. Since Imran Khan had made his electoral battle a matter of him-vs-the-rest, and rejected any kind of coalition with any of his provincial or national adversaries, no major party is still ready to forgive him for his diatribes and foul language.

The much talked about idea, or allegedly planned scenario, of a coalition between the PTI and the PPP came to naught when the Seraiki belt found itself in Khan’s lap and the PML-N dissidents from Balochistan were weaned away from Asif Ali Zardari, who had initially played a part in their revolt. What followed then has resulted in an unsustainable hung National Assembly. Consequently, the PTI government will not be in a position to pass any bill without the assent of one of the two major opposition parties. It’s going to be a very rowdy parliament with a very vocal opposition on the streets.

In the presence of a very proactive judiciary and an even more active NAB, how will Khan drag his feet on the crusade against corruption which he had so vehemently launched and benefitted most from due to the exclusion of Nawaz Sharif from the main electoral battlefield in Punjab? Being the principal crusader against corruption and the sole beneficiary of perceived targeted accountability, the would-be-prime-minister has no option but to respond to the imperatives of accountability. In an expeditious political sense, Khan’s political purpose has been served and now he is banking on the decisive support of those who deserve to be held accountable for their corruption. But his own narrative has compelled him to say in his first public address that accountability will start from himself and his colleagues. This is great for moral legitimacy after all the questions over what appears to be an exaggerated electoral victory. But this will keep a minority government leader under the onslaught of his major adversaries.

On the other hand, what the opposition must not forget is that since 2013 this has been the most powerful block of traditional power-players and it now has the facility of a populist leader with a very noisy popular base of fanatics who worship Khan’s cult. This is a lethal populist-authoritarian combination. Personally, Khan should be inclined to continue with his tirade against at least all those not ready to do business with him. But, at the same time, to be able to emerge as an authoritative elected chief executive, he will have to seek autonomy in the present power structure. For this to happen, he will have to seek the backing of the parliament that he has undermined in the past and which is expected to be up in arms against him.

Keeping in line with its obsession with parliamentary politics, the opposition has sensibly opted to enter parliament, rather than demonise it the way Khan did. This is a compromise that could keep a hybrid democratic transition on a bumpy road and also benefit Khan’s government. Indeed, this is what all the parliamentary forces should be doing to strengthen parliament.

This poses yet another dilemma to Khan: he will either come into conflict with his major political challengers – the PML-N, the PPP and the MMA – or he will, if he seeks political space, have to come to terms with major stakeholders in parliament. He must understand that his parliamentary opposition has no option but to keep the even flawed democratic transition on rail. And this is the only point of convergence that can help him build authority as prime minister. In the contrary situation, he would have to follow an authoritarian line, not as an Erdogan but as a status-quo proxy. Following these elections, the parliamentary forces have no option but to join hands for the supremacy of parliament. Let’s see where the Insaf ‘revolution’ goes.

Courtesy The News

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