People can be forgiven for thinking or hoping that the political confrontation between Imran Khan’s PTI and the coalition government is beginning to ease. There is in fact no sign of that. If anything, rhetoric by both sides suggests that tensions might intensify beyond the war of words that has followed Khan’s unsuccessful and ill-advised ‘long march’.
He himself abandoned the march when fewer than expected supporters showed up at Islamabad’s ‘D-Chowk’ and were unable to brave strong-arm action taken by the police including the use of tear gas. While the former prime minister blamed the government’s use of force to thwart his march, he conceded his party was not well prepared for the effort, aimed at mounting pressure for early elections. Giving varying explanations at different times, he also said the ‘Azadi march’ ended prematurely as he feared violence because some of his supporters were armed.
This unedifying episode has not, however, deterred him or his followers from planning another march, which Khan says will involve ‘mil- lions’ descending on the capital if elections are not immediately called. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s chief minister Mahmood Khan went further, threatening to pitch the provincial police force against the centre if the march is obstructed. This prompted a swift response from the federal cabinet which announced any future march will be stopped by “full force”. The interior minister warned of more arrests.
Whether or not Islamabad will see another showdown any time soon Khan believes that protest demonstrations and show of street power are the way to coerce the government to announce elections as well as mount pressure on the judiciary and establishment. He keeps addressing the Supreme Court and the establishment directly with his demands. He probably feels that if he relents on these pressure tactics, his goal of early polls will be elusive. He may also be calculating that this keeps his support base in a state of mobilisation, which helps to demonstrate his political power and ensure his followers stay active and charged.
The government for its part, may be thinking that forcefully confronting Khan will dissipate his political strength. A strategy of attrition is expected to exhaust his supporters and drain their energies, especially if they face more setbacks like the one experienced in the abortive march on Islamabad. Arrests and FIRs against PTI leaders and activists are part of this strategy. So are efforts to discredit its leadership by charges of malfeasance and corruption against those close to Khan. Press conferences by the official spokesperson focus more on such accusations than on setting out the government’s agenda or explaining what the ‘unity coalition is doing.
Both sides seem to have calculated that continuing the confrontation is in their political interest and pays dividends. But there are reasons for them to consider whether their strategies instead entail costs for them. Will playing havoc with public order enable PTI to force early elections? Should the party leadership’s energies not be focused on actual preparations for elections it so desperately wants? After all, large rallies do not automatically translate into votes. Nor can groundwork for elections be undertaken overnight.
In Pakistan’s constituency-based, first-past-the-post electoral system, party organisation, raising funds, assessment of local politics, identification of ‘electables’ and the right ticketing decisions are the key to success. All this involves time and effort. Amassing people for protest rallies without doing the hard work of crafting a comprehensive constituency-wise election strategy does not take a party very far. Khan must also know that PTI is bereft this time of a party organiser of the skill and experience of Jahangir Khan Tareen, who was credited with PTI’s winning strategy in 2018. All the more reason for him to consider how to compensate for that and direct his party col- leagues’ energy early to this task.
Spending all his political capital on confrontational politics takes his party away from the kind of organisational work needed for effective electioneering down the road. He could also have played an important role if he had stayed on in the National Assembly. But he and his MNAs chose not to, more out of pique than any strategy, even though there was intense disagreement on this in the party. Although responsibility for the confrontation rests squarely with the PTI and its disruptive politics that are roiling the country, the government’s interest should be to calm down the fraught and volatile environment rather than reinforce the inflammatory situation created by Khan. Countering Khan’s challenge is one thing but to be preoccupied with it and adopt a narrative dominated by him is counterproductive. This approach distracts the coalition leadership from governance. The unity government after all needs to demonstrate why it wanted power ahead of scheduled elections and show it can deliver. If the public sees the government overwhelmingly engaged in politicking and countering Khan, it will generate cynicism and encourage people to think that all coalition members were interested in securing power.
In a recent CNN interview, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail said the government would have gone for elections but for the troubled economy as the government’s first duty is to fix that. If that is the case then economic policy should be the predominant focus of the government’s attention and energy.
Prospects of an IMF deal and access to urgently needed financing may have improved by the recently announced fuel price increases, but the government needs to take far more measures to restore economic stability. The more intense the government-opposition confrontation the harder it is to do that and ensure compliance with policy measures in an unsettled environment.
The greatest cost to the country of the present political confrontation is that it creates an unstable and unpredictable environment detrimental to efforts to heal an ailing economy. A failing economy cannot be in anyone’s interest. But whether or not the government and opposition accept that the political costs of their strategies outweigh their presumed advantages, the country will continue to bear the cost of unending confrontation.