From Knowns to Unknowns

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From Knowns to Unknowns


The Rubicon, the opposition had long been threatening to cross, has finally been crossed

Last Tuesday, March 8, the combined Opposition notified the National Assembly Secretariat that it is moving a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan, Speaker Asad Qaisar and Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri. The Rubicon, the Opposition had long been threatening to cross, has finally been crossed. The law stipulates 68 signatures for a no-confidence move; the combined Opposition claims it has 86.

The opposition has submitted two notices: one to requisition the NA session since the House is not in session and the other the resolution calling for a no-confidence vote against the PM. Under Article 54 of the Constitution, an NA session can be requisitioned if at least 25 per cent of the members sign it. Following such a submission, the speaker has a maximum of 14 days to summon the session.

After the NA is in session, the rules of procedure require the secretary to circulate a notice for a no-confidence resolution to be moved on the next workday. According to the rules, the resolution “shall not be voted upon before the expiry of three days or later than seven days,” from the day it is moved.

In other words, going by the date of the Opposition’s requisitioning of the NA session, the speaker must call the lower house in session by March 22. Thereafter, voting on the no-confidence motion must take place between three and seven days after the session is summoned.

Just to recap, in March 2021, following an upset in the Senate elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan had voluntarily sought and won a confidence vote, securing 178 votes — six more than the magic number. This March, warn close watchers of the political scene, the prime minister is facing strong headwinds.


What next?

The arithmetic is simple. The magic number, both for forming a government and ousting a prime minister, is 172 in a House of 342. The PTI has 155 votes and its allies have 24. That’s 179. The combined Opposition has 162 — ten members short of the required number. This means that it must get ten votes from the treasury benches to get to the magic number. Opposition sources say that that indeed is what they are counting on. In fact, they claim the Opposition has at least 20 Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf members ready to jump the ship.

How would the Opposition ensure they do vote against the prime minister? At least one source indicated that those who are ready to break rank have been asked to sign their resignations and submit them to the Opposition. This information could not be triangulated. But if it’s true and the renegade members have indeed submitted their resignations to the Opposition, that is the strongest indication of trouble for the PM.

There is also another reason. In the choppy political waters of Pakistan, the establishment — a euphemism for the army — has traditionally played the kingmaker’s role. Numbers, which should matter, can disappear or reappear. A good example of that is the voting pattern in the Senate. This also makes analysis difficult because analyses, for any degree of accuracy, must rely on certain stable benchmarks — i.e., even in a situation of flux, the analyst must be able to rely on some institutional stability. For example, when Capitol Hill was stormed by pro-Trump zealots, it created a chaotic situation. But no analyst feared the situation could lead to a military takeover in the United States.

That stability is not obtained in Pakistan, as is evidenced by the country’s chequered political history. Even as the combined Opposition appears confident of winning the no-confidence vote, one cannot ignore three possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: the army, having despaired of Khan’s intransigence and generally poor governance has decided to rock the boat and (a) will let the opposition gather numbers and (b) help them gather some more externally and internally (PTI); scenario 2: the army has indicated that the Opposition can try and dislodge Khan but it won’t get involved directly. Put another way, its inaction — or neutrality, if you will — means passive support for the Opposition. So, the Opposition is on its own but knows they won’t be thwarted. (PML-N sources say this is the scenario playing out); scenario 3: the army is letting the opposition go ahead with its move but using the pressure as leverage with Khan to extract what they want. In scenario 1, Khan would be toast; in scenario 2, the Opposition will have to poach renegades on its own steam. The army’s neutrality will help it and further induce those sitting on the fence to join the Opposition ranks; in scenario 3, the Opposition could get a rude shock when the motion is put to vote, especially if Khan agrees to play ball with the army.


Let’s assume scenario 2 as the dominant one. What would be Khan’s strategy? He has already gone on an offensive, addressing rallies and attacking the Opposition leaders; he has directed that no treasury member should go to parliament. That’s a quasi-legitimate move because the onus of getting 172 members is on the movers of the no-confidence motion. But it could cross the line into coercion if those who want to go to the session are forcibly stopped by the PTI youth wing Khan has called upon to ensure compliance. The Opposition would try and insert their own muscle to counter the PTI storm troopers. That could result in chaos and violence.

This instability comes at a time of great external challenges for Pakistan. The Ukraine crisis has already made international waters more choppy and diplomatic handling of it more difficult. The US and Europe are using every coercive tool in their kitties to pressure non-European states. Internally, the threat of terrorism is making a return. Economic pressures have slashed peoples’ real incomes and inflation is running high. Ironically, whereas these factors demand political stability and consensus, they are the very factors the Opposition is relying on to get rid of Khan.

Ironic also is the fact that if scenario 2 does indeed play out to the Opposition’s advantage, we might realise at that stage that getting rid of Khan was perhaps the easier part. The combined Opposition is glued together by only one thing: the desire to see Khan’s back. Beyond that the Opposition is a disparate, motley crowd with their own interests, often contradictory and conflicting. While, the two main opposition parties — the PML-N and the PPP — will try and divvy up the spoils, it is unlikely that they would make comfortable partners. Expansion inheres in the idea of power and even if the PML-N agrees to give space to the PPP in south Punjab, it won’t be long before they develop differences.

Add to that the PTI and Khan. A negative vote for Khan will oust him from the PM’s office but not from the country’s politics. Going by his own words, wounded he will be more dangerous. The ‘induced’ renegades who think that a PTI ticket won’t help them win the next elections might find that jumping the ship did not automatically translate into winning either — i.e., if the Opposition in fact keeps their promise of rewarding them for their betrayal.

No matter which way one slices and dices this, the situation is likely to go from bad to worse. But one thing needs to be said, and clearly: Khan has brought this on himself. He was constantly advised by the establishment to not push the Opposition to the wall, to give them the space necessary for a dialogue. Khan refused to heed that advice. Not only that, he also chose to undermine the very support that had got him to where he is. If the vote goes through as the Opposition is expecting, Khan would probably realise that politics is the art of the possible; it requires aggregating interests and making compromises. It is not about perfection but the good one can bring to it. He chose perfection, which is the enemy of the good.

The result: a vote of no-confidence at a time when Pakistan can least afford it. As Edgar said in King Lear: And worse I may be yet: the worst is not. So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’


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