Are we heading towards a final showdown?

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Ansar M Bhatti

While devastating floods continue to take a heavy toll on the affected people in particular and the rest of the country in general, the political climate continues to turn rough with each passing day. Despite a number of court cases, including the terrorism one, PTI Chairman Imran Khan seems undeterred and hence moves on with his anti-government campaign. Albeit, the by-elections have been postponed, the PTI has decided not to stop its mass-contact drive. It has rather decided to give it further impetus by putting inflation at top of its agenda. The coalition government was desperate to get rid of Imran Khan’s public rallies and that is why it sought to get the elections postponed, however it has not happened. The movement is likely to gear up further after this elections postponement.

In his rally in Gujranwala on September 10, 2022 the PTI Chairman announced to give a final call to his workers in near future. Prima facie, Imran Khan appeared to be readying his workers for yet another long march, though many believe this call actually shall never translate into reality, because some under the table deal is already being mulled, which, analysts believe, is likely to bear some fruit. Imran Khan has been using his cards quite prudently or perhaps that is the impression his confidants or even he himself are giving to all and sundry.

During his recent public gathering when he made a mention of the appointment of the next army chief, it was not without a purpose. Previously he was holding the view that this appointment does not concern him at all. It was up to the incumbent government to deal with this issue the way it likes. But now suddenly he has come up with a different view on the subject. His live speeches on the national hook-up were barred by the PEMRA after he said that he will not accept the army chief appointment if made by the coalition government. Not only this, he had demanded this appointment to be made purely on merit, which means the army chief must be picked up from the top two senior generals. Now that is the point where actually the shoe pinches. It has seldom happened in the history of Pakistan that the army chief is picked on the basis of seniority principle. He is always picked up from a panel of five or six senior generals. Historically, candidates appearing in the last in the seniority list were most of the time picked up. The respective prime ministers appointed army chiefs with this hope that the person would serve their interests knowing the fact very well that once appointed the army chief then belongs to his institutions only.

Various plans are under consideration right now. Since Imran Khan has tried to make the army chief appointment controversial by discussing it in a public rally therefore it is likely that the incumbent government tries to avoid making this appointment and leaves it to the caretaker government. In that case a caretaker government will have to be formed either by the end of September or in October. In this scenario, the general elections may take place in January or February next year, if everything goes well. PTI seems comfortable with this arrangement and would like to have it in place sooner rather than later.

There is another scenario as well. The sitting government may appoint the army chief on merit as demanded by the PTI chairman, which means the top position will go to the second senior most general. The senior most ostensibly would become the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. The senior most may also be appointed as the COAS.  If this happens, then obviously it shall be a big shift from status quo to a paradigm change. Hitherto, the forces of the status quo have not allowed any paradigm change to take place in Pakistan.

The Nawaz Sharif camp, on the other hand, has its own plan ready. The PML N supremo is all set to return to Pakistan for that is the only option to keep the PML N vote intact and the party united. Maryam Nawaz has already approached the court to get her passport back. If she is able to get it back, then she departs to London and comes back with her father. There is no denying the fact that the PML N is in dire straits ever since it took over charge of the government after removal of Imran Khan.

Realistically speaking, powers-that-be have realized that PML N led by Shehbaz Sharif cannot compete with the PTI. The by-elections in various constituencies proved this fact when PML N badly lost to the PTI despite the fact it was in power both at the Center and in the Punjab province. This defeat certainly had rung alarm bells within the ranks of PML N making it incumbent upon Nawaz Sharif to earnestly think about his return and lead the party. That is the only way to stop the PTI getting two-thirds majority in the general elections.

 Regarding Imran Khan’s cases, undoubtedly a sword is still dangling over his head because he refused to tender an unconditional apology in the contempt case.   The Khan camp believes an unconditional apology would be tantamount to a confession, which means if the court would hand down punishment, Imran Khan shall have no option to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court. People privy to this case still believe he can go scot free by tendering an apology at the time of the indictment. His legal experts nevertheless opine, an apology involved huge risks.

Summing up, September and October may be crucial months in Pakistani politics. A future course is likely to be set in these months. It all depends on Imran Khan how serious he is in his long march commitment. If he gives a call then things might get complicated. The government has a plan to impose Governor’s rule in Punjab or KP in order to avoid a long march. That move would further aggravate tensions. The saner voices, as reports suggest, are busy in finding an amicable way out.