Secret talks between the government and the main opposition party to finalise the schedule for fresh parliamentary elections later this year have stalled over whether the key announcement should be made before or after the budget, which is due in June.
Interlocutors from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) are insisting that the announcement must be made after the incumbent government presents what they said would be an incentive-laden budget, with polls to be held in October.
Countering that position, negotiators representing the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are pushing the embattled administration to call snap elections in March immediately after polls for half of the Senate seats.
“We are stuck on this point. Both groups are adamant on their demand and it looks like the agreement may take more time than we initially anticipated,” said a top PPP leader.
Both sides, however, were confident that they could overcome the differences on the most important point to pave the way for a smooth run-up to the elections, which are being seen as a test case for the country’s politicians to save the democratic system from what they fear are threats from a ‘hidden force’.
Top leaders from the two largest parties entered late last year into what they called ‘conciliatory’ negotiations after signs appeared that the powerful military might be supporting groups hostile to both of them.
Their main fear was what appeared to be an unprecedentedly rapid rise of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as a ‘third force’ on the country’s political horizon which was dominated by the PPP and PML-N in the 1990s.
It was reported earlier in the month that both sides are holding behind-the-scene negotiations through interlocutors appointed by President Asif Ali Zardari and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and they had agreed on four out of six point of what they called a smooth democratic transition to elections.
None of the parties, however, publicly admit to the talks, which are reportedly taking place in Islamabad and Lahore and regularly monitored not only by Zardari and Sharif but also by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
According to media reports, Gilani will soon be holding direct interaction with Nawaz Sharif to seal the deal once a roadmap is prepared by negotiators. A spokesperson for the premier, however, denied this.
“I’m not aware of any such thing planned,” said Akram Shaheedi, an information department official who deals with media on behalf of Gilani.
But the premier himself dropped a strong hint on what experts believed was going to be a pro-people budget, containing many concessions for the ‘downtrodden masses’ who have suffered at the hands of multiple crises since the PPP took over back in 2008.
“We will overcome the energy shortage in six months … the people will start having the benefits our economic policies soon,” the premier told the media in Lahore last week, giving an idea of how the PPP was planning to take advantage of the incumbency for elections.
On the other hand, a spokesperson for the PML-N told The Express Tribune it would be a totally ‘political budget’ if the PPP government presents it with the parliamentary polls in the mind.
“This,” said Senator Mushahidullah Khan, the information secretary of the PML-N, “will be a situation we will never like.”
He, however, said his party believed the Zardari-Gilani administration won’t survive the current standoff with the judiciary and the military in the form of contempt case against the premier and Memogate scandal.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2012.