Pakistani politics is getting messier with each passing day. From alleged audio leaks of senior judges to alleged (non)interviews of a former army chief to a war of words between the Pakistan Democratic Movement government and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the political chaos in the country continues to grow. Moreover, there are visible cracks in the superior judiciary even as differences between the government and the judiciary continue to increase. Things have come to such a pass that there is bound to be a collision that may not end well.
Amidst all this, it seems that the elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will not be taking place till the general elections in October this year. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court’s larger bench ruled — in a 3-2 split verdict — that the elections should be held within 90 days in both provinces. It directed the Election Commission of Pakistan to propose a date for the holding of the polls that deviates to the “barest minimum” from the 90-day deadline. Finally, polls in Punjab were announced for April 30. But a week ago, the ECP announced the postponement of the upcoming elections in Punjab citing security reasons and said that the elections will now take place on October 8. The polls for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that were set to take place on May 28 have also been delayed to October 8 by the governor. The PTI condemned this move and has taken the matter to court. The delay in polls in these two provinces has led to another constitutional crisis as the Supreme Court is hearing a petition by the PTI challenging the ECP’s decision on the Punjab elections. The PDM government had already made it clear that it is in no mood to allow elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while a population census is ongoing. However, legal experts say that the decision by the ECP is weak and flawed. On the other hand, the government’s justification to delay the polls was only to be expected.
The political polarisation in the country has grown to such an extent that political parties don’t even pretend to care for the law of the land. There were clashes between the police and PTI workers/supporters as Imran Khan continued to evade appearing in court in the Toshakhana case. The scenes that played out on our television screens and on social media were surreal, to say the least. When Imran Khan finally decided to appear before the court, the judicial complex almost turned into a war zone. He, therefore, signed his appearance papers from his car. That someone was accorded this leniency by the courts for so many months may seem bizarre to many but somehow, the judiciary is not bothered about accusations of institutional partisanship to one party. The top court in the country has come under fire for its judgments that allegedly favour the PTI. Now, there are voices within the superior judiciary that are lamenting the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s discretionary powers to form benches and take suo motu cognisance. In a recent, detailed ruling, two judges of the Supreme Court wrote: “We find it essential to underline that in order to strengthen our institution and to ensure public trust and public confidence in our Court, it is high time that we revisit the power of ‘one-man show’ enjoyed by the office of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.” A day later, the government tabled a bill in the National Assembly to shift the powers of taking suo motu notice from the Chief Justice to a three-member committee comprising three senior judges so that the power does not remain with one office-holder. This will surely lead to a clash between the executive and the judiciary, something that we remember vividly during the Pakistan People’s Party’s tenure from 2008-13 when Iftikhar Chaudhry was the Chief Justice. The courts had dismissed the then prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, and made it quite difficult for the PPP to rule.
Political observers have pointed out that leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) are also saying that if rules do not apply to Imran Khan, then they, too, will not follow the principles and rules that political stakeholders are expected to follow. Insiders say that the PML-N insists that if Imran Khan’s popularity rose after the PTI used Article 5 to get rid of the vote of no-confidence — a move that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year — then delaying polls in two provinces would not harm the PDM government either. They also say that it is clear that Imran Khan, who had exploited the false foreign conspiracy narrative, is now trying to mend relations with the United States of America. So other political parties feel that they no longer have to play by the rules.
This sort of thinking amongst political stakeholders is dangerous. If nobody follows the rules of the game, the resultant political chaos will be uncontrollable and the damage to the country will be immense. The PML-N leadership has made it abundantly clear that it is fighting a war of survival. Ever since the PDM and its allies ousted Imran Khan as the prime minister through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022, the PML-N has become considerably unpopular due to rising inflation and the economic crisis confronting Pakistan. The PML-N blames Imran Khan’s government for the crisis because it did not honour the commitments made to the International Monetary Fund during its tenure. As a result, the IMF is giving Pakistan a tough time. But it is no secret that the PML-N has not been able to manage the economy either. Buying time will not help the economy if there is political uncertainty in the country. Dialogue is the way forward.
Imran Khan has — finally — agreed to sit with his political opponents to resolve the crisis. This, after he had continuously refused to sit with his rivals when he was in government. But now the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, who extended an olive branch to Imran Khan on several occasions, has said that talks will be held with him only after he apologises to the nation for his wrongdoings. In this game of thrones, the PML-N wants to stick to power come what may and the PTI wants to be back in power. Unfortunately, democracy may turn out to be casualty in this political gimmickry.
Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore; email@example.com