The Roundup: In the 21st century, crisis is the new coup

The last seven days were packed with dizzying levels of politicking

Gibran Peshimam August 11, 2014

Where do we begin recounting this last week? Starting on the heels of a thunderous Sunday that saw both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri beat the war drums louder than ever, the last seven days were packed with dizzying levels of politicking.

The last semblance of a calm façade that the ruling party was struggling to maintain, one denial after another, has come crumbling down, one meeting after another.

Amidst it all, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) seem to be the advisers and negotiators respectively.

For the JI, the equation is simple. Having spent five years before the 2013 General Elections in political obscurity, the chance to be in the middle of the action was always going to be an opportunity, and the JI took it with both hands: a welcome opening for a party now looking to rebuild as a political contender under a new Amir (leader) after being led disastrously for the last few years by a man who was, suffice it to say, clearly not cut out for mainstream politics. But they’re back in business now and also a part of the ruling coalition of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The role also comes naturally to JI given that it is a past ally of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and has the best access to Imran Khan by virtue of being a current ally of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in K-P. Sirajul Haq is looking his part, and, in fact, the one possible solution doing the rounds this past week that could potentially solve an apparent impasse between the PTI and PML-N was being dubbed the “Siraj Formula.”

The Siraj Formula was articulated by the prime minister himself on Saturday during a meeting on national security (which was, for all intents and purposes, a meeting about the government’s security). He held that Imran Khan had told Siraj that he was willing to call off the Azadi March if the government committed to opening up 10 constituencies of the 2013 elections for scrutiny to investigate electoral fraud – something the premier said he was willing to do. Word had it that the exercise would be made possible through a Presidential Ordinance, and the findings would then be presented to the 33-member parliamentary panel for electoral reforms for action.

But Imran slammed the door shut on that pretty emphatically. In fact, he also first delayed a meeting scheduled on Saturday with Sirajul Haq and then went on to cancel the meeting entirely, stating that the time to talk was over. Imran doesn’t want any sort of doubt, internally or externally, over whether the Azadi March is happening.

Imran did say that negotiations would now take place after the march – which are positive words meaning that there is still some room to maneuver for the ruling party.

The PPP’s role has also been very interesting. The prime minister has over the last few days keenly sought the counsel of former president Asif Ali Zardari, who is in the US these days. After all, if there’s one thing the PPP chief knows, it’s crisis management, having seen his government through so many difficult times during its five year rule and many times when most people, if not everyone, had written the government off.

The PPP’s role has been more of an adviser than mediator. In fact, in a telephone conversation with Imran Khan, Zardari ended up expressing support for the PTI chief’s demand for scrutinizing the polling in the 2013 elections. Zardari also contacted another party involved in stoking tensions against the government – former allies Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), but Chaudhry Shujaat wasn’t playing ball. Clearly, the PML-Q has placed its last chance for relevance in this move against the government.

Thousands of PTI protestors occupying the capital will be yet another blow for the ruling party with the Dr Tahirul Qadri protests already having spiralled out of control and spreading across Punjab. At least eight people have been killed in clashes between police and Dr Qadri’s supporters as a result of the government’s botched attempt to stop them from observing Yaum-e-Shahuda.

Now the PML-Q and Dr Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) will also march to Islamabad on August 14. The worry of PTI’s protest turning violent was minimal; but all bets are off when you throw PAT and PML-Q into the mix. It all seems very precarious for the government at the moment.

The end-game, however, seems unclear. The PTI chief spent the entire past week upping the ante rhetorically. The PTI’s demand has been clearly voiced: fresh elections – and that’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to get from the government in most scenarios. Dr Qadri says the government will be gone by the end of August, which also looks less than plausible.

Does it simply mean that the chances are that nothing will happen?

Here’s the thing: a lot already has happened; more than meets the eye.

Just rewind to 2008. The PPP had just come to power, and it had a real sense of purpose to it; there was confidence, independence and, most importantly, little to no deference to the traditional non-political power holders. A traditionally bitter rival was a coalition partner; no-first-use with India; ISI under the civilians. Nothing was anathema anymore.

But suddenly, one crisis after another a few months later, and you had a broken government that spent the next four years cowering in a corner, ready to not only defer, but to kowtow like a good and obedient civilian government; and by doing so, it was able to complete its tenure.

When the PML-N came to power in 2013, it was even more charged and more confident, with a clear and simple majority in the centre and in Punjab. In any case, Nawaz is traditionally a man who likes to rule assertively; and in his bid to assert his authority, he has had many run-ins with Pindi and the bureaucracy in his past stints as prime minister.

The first year of this seemed to pass pretty smoothly and with incredible intent. All the important boxes were being checked off in terms of governance, regional cooperation and domestic economic conditions.

Some five weeks ago, I asked a question in this very column: “Where and why did it go south so fast?” The answer is simple, really. You see, dear reader, in the 21st century, crisis is the new coup.

Whatever Imran and Qadri achieve on and after August 14 is only a bonus.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th,2014.