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EDITORIAL: An unseemly row has broken out between Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government on the one hand and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on the other following the shock defeat of Dr Hafeez Shaikh by former PM Yousaf Raza Gilani for an Islamabad Senate seat. Gilani won by five votes, while seven ballots were rejected. Following this defeat in the high stakes contest, PM Imran Khan in his television address to the country the next day roundly castigated the ECP for ‘damaging democracy’ through adhering to a secret ballot for the Senate elections, which, according to this logic, resulted in 15-16 PTI MNAs being able to vote against the government’s candidate or deliberately defacing their ballot in return, it is alleged, for money. The ECP’s response to this angry diatribe was to iterate that it would not succumb to pressure just to appease somebody, could not ignore the Constitution and law, and advised the PTI not to be so very upset, have a big heart to accept defeat, and stop its mudslinging on the ECP after losing one (albeit politically important) Senate seat while being happy at the rest of the seats it had won. This prompted a press conference by three PTI heavyweights arguing the ECP should be ashamed not saddened for not being able to conduct a clean, corruption-free election as mandated by the Supreme Court (SC) in its verdict on the presidential reference. Naturally, the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) did not feel it could stay out of this exchange, with Maulana Fazlur Rehman and other PDM leaders arguing Imran Khan was trying to pressurise the ECP in the context of the PTI foreign funding case before the ECP. As to the meeting between the PM, COAS and ISI chief one day after the Dr Hafeez Shaikh debacle, the hitherto unremarked upon confab took on new meaning in terms of its timing. The PDM view was that this was an attempt to drag the military into the current political crisis, but would not benefit the government in any way.

During his address to the country, PM Imran Khan said he would take a vote of confidence from the National Assembly (NA) on March 6, 2021, which he did and secured 178 votes, five more than required. However, it proved a one-sided and lacklustre affair simply because the opposition boycotted it. In the buildup to the confidence vote, the PM and other ministers hosted the party’s MNAs in Islamabad, implying the 15-16 ‘traitors’ had been extended a ‘forgive and forget’ clean chit or an ‘NRO’ to use the PTI lexicon, despite Imran Khan’s rant the previous day. The logic for this turnaround was impeccable and undeniable. The wavering members’ votes were needed to prevent the fall of the government if it did not achieve the magic figure of 172 votes. This contradiction at the heart of the government’s approach was of course pounced upon by the opposition to argue that this had demolished the PTI’s anti-corruption narrative, on which it had come to power. No amount of reiteration of commitment to this objective by PM Imran Khan on the floor of the house after the confidence vote could erase the discomfort around the compromise.

Actually, the PTI government has repeatedly shot itself in the foot in its misplaced efforts to change the Senate elections mode to some form of open balloting or, at the very least, technologically making votes traceable and identifiable. Although the campaign meandered through multiple levels and directions of push, including an attempted (but doomed) constitutional amendment and a presidential reference to the SC, it all proved too little, too late, and arguable fundamentally flawed and misconceived. The real area to introspect on for the government after this debacle is not seek scapegoats such as the ECP, but reflect on the manner in which Imran Khan has injured his chances of meaningful legislation through at least a minimum of healthy relations with the opposition, ignored (by and large) parliament, and remained aloof (and thereby created an impression of arrogance) from his party’s and coalition’s parliamentarians. In recent days, as a result of the government’s worries regarding the solidity of their parliamentarians’ loyalties, some of this was reversed. A summing up of these events would indicate that PM Imran Khan has to draw the (sometimes bitter) lessons of the flaws in his approach to politics. However, his speech in the NA after the confidence vote was on such familiar lines that scepticism must attend any hopes for such a change.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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