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Enter CM Elahi

Editorial Board
Wednesday, Jul 27, 2022

In the case of the neverending musical chairs that the Punjab CM slot has become, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has given its verdict: Hamza Shehbaz is no longer the chief minister of Punjab; Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi is the new chief minister of Punjab; and Deputy Speaker Punjab Assembly Dost Muhammad Mazari’s ruling on July 17 stands null and void, and has no basis in law, with the apex court declaring that “the governance of the province of Punjab in accordance with the constitution has been subverted whereby the fundamental rights of the people have been seriously infringed”. The reactions have been as would be expected, given the political situation. The PTI has naturally hailed the verdict, calling it a triumph of justice. The PDM – which had been demanding a full-court bench in this matter, saying it found the three-member bench controversial – has come out railing against the judgment, Maryam Nawaz even calling it a “judicial coup”.

What happens now depends largely on how each side of the political aisle plays its hand. On the face of it, the coalition government stands on a much weaker wicket: it has a fragile government at the centre and has lost its big-ticket province of Punjab. Regardless of what option each side picks, Pakistan’s political chaos is set to become even more complicated. With Punjab now with the PTI, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa already with the PTI, Sindh with the PPP, Balochistan largely likely to follow whatever happens in the other provinces, the PTI is already back with its fresh-election demand. Shortly after the SC verdict, PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi asked PM Shehbaz Sharif to ‘gracefully’ resign, dissolve the assemblies and call a fresh election. That has been the PTI’s demand from the day Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister. How the party now moves forward depends on Imran Khan’s strategy. Will the PTI dissolve both the provincial assemblies it holds and force an election or continue to exert political pressure on the government in the centre to call early elections? The party may be looking at the latter option as a preference. Questions regarding Elahi’s stance of dissolving the Punjab Assembly so soon after taking over as CM have been asked from the beginning, and he has clarified that he will go whichever way Imran wishes, but Punjab’s politics have thrown surprise after surprise so nothing can be said to be certain. There is also the not-so-small matter of the 25 deseated PTI dissidents. PML-N leaders have asked what happens to them in this case. There will no doubt be more questions regarding the presidential reference verdict – in which the SC had interpreted Article 63A, an interpretation that has by most legal analysis led to this current situation. Perhaps the detailed order can help clarify the controversy surrounding its interpretation of the votes of defectors.

So far, Imran Khan’s narrative has outclassed the PDM’s narrative. He has managed to galvanize his supporters despite the PTI’s economic mismanagement and mis-governance. On the other hand, the federal government can decide to continue its term but can it take the economic and political pressure? For many observers, that seems unlikely. The PDM-PPP’s Chaudhry Shujaat card – seen as a masterstroke at the time – has been neutralized by the SC verdict. So what now? By most reports and rumours, the PML-N will not be ready to go down an election rabbithole without a safe return of Nawaz Sharif to the country – a Nawaz Sharif who can campaign for a party that has lost popularity and credibility over the past few months. With such weak standing, negotiating a return too looks tough at the moment. A word of caution for all stakeholders: the country is already standing almost at the edge of an economic disaster. Maybe it’s time to talk?