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In Pakistan, it’s a free play of political opportunists, not a struggle for democracy

Like other populist leaders facing the threat of being ousted by elected representatives, Imran Khan is using the religion and nationalist cards.

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The farce seems to have gone too far. It is neither a battle between ‘good and evil’, as Prime Minister Imran Khan would like us to believe, nor is it a struggle for democracy, as the combined opposition claims. We are witnessing a free play of political opportunists, fortune seekers and self-important hangers-on. It is a vicious power struggle, and for lack of alternatives we are all victims of it.

With just a few days left for the vote on the no-confidence motion against the prime minister, political wheeling and dealing has hit a new low. Given the ever-shifting loyalties and alliances, the numbers game will go right down to the wire. The situation is now changing every hour, with no clear outcome of the unfolding power struggle in sight. A lot will also depend on the Supreme Court ruling on the presidential reference on the defection and disqualification clauses.

Just as it seemed the game was over, the prime minister made an unexpected move, winning back the support of the PML-Q. The price is the Punjab chief minister’s office that the Chaudhries of Gujrat had coveted. Interestingly, the opposition had also reportedly struck a deal with the PML-Q, promising to support Pervaiz Elahi for the post. The party’s sudden about-turn when all seemed set is quite intriguing.

Also read: Pak PM Imran Khan shares some details from ‘foreign conspiracy letter’ with cabinet members, journalists

It seems that the wily Chaudhries have made their own political calculations. The deep-rooted distrust of the PML-N and their old political rivalry in Punjab seem to be the reason behind the PML-Q’s opting for the PTI. The opposition’s no-confidence move against the Punjab chief minister has made the ongoing political drama more thrilling.

Now the PTI is fighting for survival on two fronts. It is a battle for Islamabad as well as for Lahore. The outcome is interlinked. It is apparent that the outcome of the voting in the National Assembly, which is expected to take place in less than a week, will have a direct bearing on Punjab politics. The battle for Lahore is as tenuous as it is for Islamabad.

The situation remains completely unpredictable in the midst of the shifting political sands. The return to the fold of the PML-Q may have sparked hope in PTI ranks that the party could take the battle to the end. But it remains to be seen if it can win in view of the heavy odds stacked against it and with other allies hedging their bets. It is now evident that the prime minister is ready to make any kind of compromise to save his government.

He is engaging in the same sort of wheeling and dealing which he had been accusing the opposition of indulging in. The ‘moral high ground’ that he claimed to have held seems to be slipping away as the threat to his survival in power increases. Muting his arrogance, the PM is now prepared to go to any extent to purchase political loyalties. The PTI’s latest deal with the PML-Q is a glaring example of the hypocrisy that is so deeply entrenched in the country’s politics.

With Usman Buzdar’s fate already sealed in the face of the no-confidence motion against him, it was expedient for the prime minister to accede to the demand of the PML-Q. Buzdar’s resignation may have saved him from the disgrace of being voted out by the provincial assembly, but it will not save the PTI government in the province. The unceremonious exit of the man on whom Imran Khan had placed all his bets, ignoring the opposition within his party, indicates the changing direction of the political winds. The ascension of an unknown politician from D.G. Khan to one of the country’s top political positions has also remained a major irritant in the civil-military relationship.

Meanwhile, the compromise with the PML-Q is likely to divide the party further. It is not clear if all the PTI members, including the various dissident factions, will vote for Pervaiz Elahi. If Pervaiz Elahi becomes chief minister, it would further weaken the PTI’s already shrinking support base in the country’s most powerful province.

Now the PTI is desperately trying to prevent the MQM, the other estranged ally, from defecting to the opposition. With its seven MNAs, the group’s support will be important, if not critical, in the final count. Like the PML-Q and other smaller groups in the coalition, the MQM has also traditionally been looking towards the security establishment before deciding its political moves.

But with the military leadership stepping aside, the group is left on its own to decide on its course of political action. That has also allowed it to bargain hard with both sides. A major interest of the group is to reassert itself as the most powerful political force in urban Sindh with an eye on the future election. The game is likely to be over for the PTI government if the party decides to go with the opposition.

The battle is not only being fought in the National Assembly. Imran Khan has also decided to take the conflict to the people. Like other populist leaders facing the threat of being ousted by elected representatives, Imran Khan is using the religion and nationalist cards. He is trying to galvanise his supporters by resorting to religious slogans and depicting the unfolding power struggle as a conflict between ‘good and evil’.

But most dangerous is his claim of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ being hatched to oust him. Addressing a public rally in Islamabad last week, he waved a paper saying that it contained evidence of a “foreign-funded conspiracy” to topple his government. He claimed that he was being punished for pursuing an “independent foreign policy” and not succumbing to foreign diktat. There was, however, no mention of the source of that letter.

It is indeed a very serious allegation of foreign interference in the country’s domestic political matters. But instead of taking the matter to the proper elected and security forums, the prime minister chose to make it a public issue, raising questions about the credibility of the claim. Such allegations won’t help him salvage the situation.

The writer is an author and journalist.

The article first appeared on Dawn website.

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