Shifting winds

Editorial Board
Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Friday de-seated 25 PTI dissident members in Punjab who had voted for Hamza Shehbaz as chief minister of Punjab. This was not something unexpected as Article 63-A comprehensively explains the defection process. While not a surprise, it has once again left Punjab rudderless with a minority government while there seems to be no apparent governor in charge. Now it is all but clear that Hamza will have to go for a new election once again. Without the deseated 25 members – on whose seats by-elections will have to be held – no CM candidate will have enough majority to be elected and a second round of election with majority votes from the sitting MPAs will then form the government. This entire process will take another few weeks. That means Punjab is again without a functioning government, and with a continuing constitutional crisis.

All this is going on while the centre stays in limbo in a crisis of its own. Although the federal government has announced the date for the budget, there is still so much scepticism regarding whether the government will stay to present a budget – early election being the foremost rumour doing the rounds. Ever since the Shehbaz Sharif government came to power, it seems to have been looking at an invisible sword hanging over its head. A lot of this could well be a result of a scared coalition government but there are indications that some of the pressure has been real. In a further blow to the government came the Supreme Court’s suo-motu notice of ‘perceived interference in the independence of the prosecution branch’, including amendments in the NAB law. On Thursday, the SC barred authorities from transferring and making new appointments in high-profile cases related to NAB and those heard by special courts. The legal community seems divided over such judicial activism. And opposition leaders are asking why no suo-motu action was taken regarding former DG FIA Bashir Memon’s scandalous allegations about Imran Khan’s pressure on the FIA to make fake cases against the opposition leaders, or when the judiciary itself said how NAB is being used as a political tool to settle scores.

So where do we go from here? In Punjab, the PTI and PML-Q are asking Hamza Shehbaz to resign. In the centre, there is divided opinion among analysts over whether the current government should just call it a day and stake their bets on early elections or double down in front of any political or institutional pressures and continue with the coalition. The government is putting on a brave face for now, but the dithering on major economic questions has left a rather bad taste overall. It has also fuelled the perception that there may be other plans regarding the future of the federal government – which for all intents and purposes seems to be hanging in the balance right now. With Imran Khan announcing that he will give a definite date for the long march to Islamabad on Sunday, and social-media fed rumours calling Sunday the day the government’s fate is decided – and the return of Hafeez Sheikh with much protocol – is Pakistan headed towards a technocracy? This has been denied from the highest official quarters and one would think even the PTI would find it hard to accept that rather than an early election. Sunday and the coming week may just end up answering the far-too-lingering political questions in the country.