Circumstances forced the federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to revive their stalemated dialogue to resolve the issue of election rigging, but it didn’t necessarily change their perception of each other.
It is possible the two sides would still be trading accusations and avoiding negotiations had the tragedy at the Army Public School and College, Peshawar not taken place. And it is likely they could revert to their old positions once the killing of the 146 people, overwhelmingly schoolchildren, at the school is forgotten in due course of time as has been so often the case in Pakistan.
Already, the talks on formation of the proposed judicial commission to probe the alleged election fraud have hit the roadblock. In fact, the PTI’s chief negotiator Shah Mahmood Qureshi has said he would be reporting to his party head Imran Khan that it is useless to continue the talks due to the government’s lack of seriousness and inflexibility. It seems the government negotiators would give the same message to the PML-N leader, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, though they would instead accuse the PTI of being obdurate.
There was no way the PTI chairman could have continued his politics of ‘dharnas’ to protest the alleged rigging in the May 2013 general election following the Peshawar school massacre. He had to put an end to this distracting spectacle as the public opinion would have turned against him if he had persisted with the protests. Also, such a stance would have annoyed the powerful military, which wanted a united civil and military response to the militants who slaughtered the schoolchildren, mostly belonging to army families. Not only Imran Khan but every other politician realised that the military would not take kindly to any attempt to divide the nation at such a critical stage when there was need to set politics aside and act decisively against the militants.
However, Imran is unlikely to give up the fight easily after having persisted with his Islamabad protest sit-in across the road from the Parliament building, the Presidency and the Prime Minister House for 126 days. He had painted himself in a corner by declaring that he is a fighter who never gives up and is someone accustomed to victory. He had raised expectations of his followers by announcing numerous times that success is in sight and that the ‘umpire’ was about to raise finger and give Nawaz Sharif out. The PTI chief needs to achieve something, declare victory and leave. That hasn’t happened yet and the egoistic Imran cannot be expected to concede defeat.
The Nawaz Sharif government too is dragging its feet after concluding that Imran may not be able to revive his protest campaign in the changed circumstances when the military is now focused on defeating the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)-led militants. It could even be trying to buy time and deflect attention from the core issue of election rigging that Imran had brought to the fore through his tireless protest campaign of ‘dharna’ in Islamabad and big public meetings in bigger cities. Inane issues such as the definition of rigging and the endless debate on the terms of reference for the judicial commission have also held up any breakthrough in the negotiations between the two sides.
The ruling PML-N appears to be taking a calculated risk by not conceding ground on the issue. In comparison, the PTI despite Imran’s apparent intransigence has retreated from its earlier stance by no longer insisting that the Prime Minister should resign so that he isn’t able to influence the judicial commission or other departments and officials tasked with probing the allegations of rigging in the polls. It now wants the Prime Minister to quit if the judicial commission is able to establish that the polls were rigged. However, it would be an uphill task to arrive at this conclusion due to the contested nature of the 2013 election and the polarised positions taken by both sides on the issue.
Though the talks are deadlocked, none of the side has yet announced to end the dialogue. Efforts are now being made to convince the PTI to attend the National Assembly session beginning on January 5 so that its lawmakers could vote in favour of the 21st constitutional amendment to pave the way for setting up military courts to try militants charged with involvement in acts of terrorism.
The PTI has backed the proposal for constituting the military courts even though the issue has generated controversy as some of the political parties are now backtracking on the issue and the judges, lawyers and sections of the civil society are opposed to it.
The government in general and the military in particular would be keen to see the PTI MNAs return to the National Assembly so that the constitutional amendment is unanimously passed. The PTI MNAs and its MPAs in Punjab and Sindh assemblies resigned on Imran’s directives as part of his campaign to put pressure on the federal government to accept his demands for a probe into the alleged election rigging, punishing those involved in the fraud, restructuring the Election Commission and carrying out electoral reforms. However, their resignations haven’t been accepted yet as both sides wanted this to be delayed so that a way out could be found to overcome the impasse. The issue of resignations had also created fissures in PTI ranks as five party MNAs from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa refused to resign unless the MPAs in the province where the PTI is in power were also instructed to put in their resignations.
Imran has also made it clear that PTI lawmakers would not return to the assemblies until the judicial commission completes its probe into the election rigging and presents its findings. This is also the reason Imran wants a timeframe for completing this task so that the issue isn’t delayed beyond a certain time. The PTI head doesn’t want Nawaz Sharif to continue in office any longer because he considers him a usurper who became the prime minister as a result of a rigged election. However, he doesn’t seem to possess any concrete evidence to show that the polls were massively rigged by the then caretaker government in favour of Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N to deprive the PTI of victory.
Already, the recounting of votes and the verification of the voters by Nadra on the orders of an election tribunal as demanded by Imran’s lawyers in the National Assembly constituency, NA-122 Lahore, hasn’t brought any good news for Imran as the votes polled by his electoral rival, National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq of the PML-N, have slightly increased than those obtained by him in May 2013.
By announcing that the PTI would be holding a public rally at Islamabad’s D-Chowk on January 17, to pay tributes to the sacrifices of its workers who attended the 126-days long ‘dharna’ there, Imran has sent a message that he would return to the familiar ground to resume his protest campaign and test the patience of the government if the prime minister refused to set up a fully empowered judicial commission with proper terms of reference based on its suggestions to probe the allegations of rigging in the 2013 general election.
The government is unlikely to concede lot of ground on the issue and it seems the stalemate in the talks would continue. Unless the military intervenes, the issue may remain unresolved and Imran could resume his suspended protest campaign in due course of time.