The political chessboard

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Politics is a war of nerves and political battles can result in terrible mistakes. What happened in the NA-75 by-election last week shows how one incident can unravel politics in this country.
It is obvious that the PTI lost its nerve as it tried to snatch a National Assembly seat in the PML-N heartland. Evidence of rigging has further weaponised the opposition narrative challenging the credibility of Imran Khan’s government. Losing in a fair election would not have cost the ruling party as much as the damage done now by the failed attempt to allegedly manipulate the poll result. It is now hard for the PTI to defend itself from the opposition’s onslaught. The Election Commission of Pakistan’s damning indictment of the Punjab administration has put the latter in an indefensible position. There are very serious charges of kidnapping of polling officers and ballot stuffing, making it difficult for the ECP to validate the election that the PTI claims to have won.
The Sialkot episode has worsened an already messy political situation. The poll took place in an atmosphere of heightened animosity. The aggressive campaign from both sides had created a tense situation in the run-up to the poll. What happened on polling day was predictable. The PML-N had previously won the seat by a large margin; the PTI made it a matter of prestige to defeat its rival in its stronghold.
We saw the complete collapse of law and order in the area on polling day, with gunmen roaming around with impunity, creating an atmosphere of fear while the law-enforcement agencies stood aside. The shameful spectacle has raised questions about the civilian administration’s ability to ensure peaceful and free and fair polling. Both sides have accused each other of violence that left at least two people dead. But it is the administration that is to be blamed for the lawlessness that was witnessed.
The Sialkot bypoll was one of several by-elections that took place across the country in the past week or so. Although violence was reported from some other constituencies, it was far less than what was seen in NA-75. What does that say about the Punjab administration? Indeed, there are accusations that the police inaction was deliberate.
The outcome of the by-elections has not been favourable to the ruling coalition. While the Sialkot result is yet to be confirmed, the loss of a KP Assembly seat in its stronghold in Nowshera came as big setback to the PTI. It may be an internal rift that cost the ruling party that election but it has nevertheless been a serious political blow to the PTI, although it won the National Assembly seat in Kurram that had earlier been held by the JUI-F. It’s apparent that the decision of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to not boycott the elections has paid off. The electoral success may not have changed the power matrix, but has certainly come as a morale booster for the opposition alliance that seemed to have lost its momentum.
The nervousness in PTI ranks is quite apparent as the Senate elections approach though the by-election results are not likely to affect the party position in the assemblies. It may be the prospect of defections within the ranks that makes the party apprehensive. The prime minister’s continuing concern over perceived horse-trading exposes the growing nervousness within the ruling coalition.
While there is no likelihood of any major upset in the representations from the provinces in the coming Senate elections, the contest for the Islamabad seat appears to be a major challenge for the ruling coalition. The PDM’s decision to put up former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as a joint candidate has made the competition more interesting.
Some political observers believe that the PTI’s insistence on open balloting exposes the leadership’s lack of confidence in its members. The presidential ordinance changing the secret voting rule and the reference in the Supreme Court reflects the government’s anxiety.
The government’s position appears more intriguing as the ruling party has a clear majority in the National Assembly that forms the electoral college for the capital’s Senate seat.
The PTI-led ruling alliance has 181 seats in the house compared to 160 on the opposition benches. There may be some brewing discontent within PTI ranks and among the allied parties but there are no signs of an open rebellion. It would require a significant number from the treasury benches to switch sides for an upset.
Surely the stakes are high for both sides for Islamabad’s Senate seat. For the opposition, the victory for Gilani would be a vote of no-confidence against the Imran Khan government.
But it is hard to understand the PDM’s optimism unless they have some kind of assurance from some powerful quarters. Interestingly, there has been a dramatic softening of tone of the opposition leaders towards the security establishment as Prime Minister Imran Khan is the sole target of attack now.
A recent statement by Gilani that the establishment is neutral in the ongoing battle between the opposition and government is quite significant in the current political milieu. One is not sure what has made the opposition believe in the establishment’s neutrality now and how this could affect the Senate elections.
Surely everything is possible in this political game of chess. But there is no evidence yet of any cleavage between the civil and military leadership that could change the existing power matrix. Staying neutral in the Senate elections would not necessarily mean that the establishment would allow the opposition to topple the PTI government.
While any setback in the Senate elections would certainly weaken the government’s legitimacy, a defeat for Gilani could also have serious consequences for the PDM. What happens on March 3 will also determine the future course of politics in the country. It is a war of nerves between a shaky government and a strident opposition coalition. It remains to be seen who wins the battle.