From stalemate to stalemate: Unpacking Punjab’s constitutional crisis

Punjab is in constitutional crisis at the moment. Though the Lahore High Court’s recent order has provided an opportunity to all sides to review their political agendas, the on-going political turmoil seems to be far from over. Punjab’s ruling parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, wish to dissolve the assembly to force snap polls in the country. In response, the ruling alliance at the centre is simultaneously throwing a gauntlet to the rulers in Punjab to go ahead with its dissolution plan while carrying out all efforts to stop the assembly from being dissolved.

The ruling coalitions – both in Punjab and at centre – are currently busy wasting time and energies to force the other side into checkmate instead of coming together to deal with the economic crisis and to alleviate the plight of the 33 million people affected by the climate-induced rains and floods. Everyone seems to have forgotten the flood-affected people amid a harsh winter season as if all their problems would simply vanish on their own. Amid the political volatility coupled with delay in receiving monetary support from global lenders and friendly countries, terrorism is rearing its ugly head again. But things are sadly not going beyond political rhetoric, usual condemnations and the habit of blaming each other.

The country, especially Punjab, has been embroiled in political and constitutional crisis since November 26 when PTI chief Imran Khan announced at a public gathering that the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assemblies would be dissolved in the coming days. Initially, the government side said that it would go to any limit to stop the dissolution from happening but then shifted gears and started challenging the PTI to go ahead with the plan, announcing that elections would be held in two provinces in case the party really went for it.

The PTI leadership too delayed the plan for the dissolution of the assemblies for weeks as PTI chief continued to meet with party members and lawmakers to finalise the plan. Fast forward to December 17, Imran, while sitting along with chief ministers of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, announced that the assemblies would be dissolved on December 23 without elaborating why he delayed the decision for another week when the parties had reached the decision that assemblies would surely be dissolved.

When the opponents and people started questioning the unusual delay, PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry was quick to incorporate that one week’s time was sought for finalising the strategy for the verification of the resignations of PTI MNAs pending in the National Assembly since April this year. With the announcement of dissolving the assemblies and conveying that the party legislators were finally ready to appear before the Speaker National Assembly after a delay of eight months, the PTI leadership thought that soon it would achieve its target of forcing general elections in the country and its winning streak would help it win if not sweep the elections.

However, the ruling alliance in the centre, being the opposition in the Punjab assembly, threw a spanner in the works. On one hand, it submitted a no-confidence motion against Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi to the speaker and the deputy speaker of Punjab Assembly and, on the other hand, Punjab Governor Baligur Rehman directed Elahi to take a vote of confidence from the assembly on December 21. PTI and PML-Q defied the order and defused the move through a ruling of Punjab Assembly speaker, who declared the governor’s direction was against the assembly rules as well as the Constitution.

In return, the governor ruled the speaker’s ruling unconstitutional and de-notified Punjab CM in the wee hours of Friday for failing to take a vote of confidence from the provincial assembly on December 21 on his order. The governor’s de-notification order was swiftly challenged before the Lahore High Court, which restored Elahi as CM Punjab after taking an undertaking from him that he won’t send a summary for the dissolution of the assembly to the governor before the next date of hearing – January 11.

What can be said with certainty for now is that Punjab assembly can’t be dissolved by January 11 and that its fate might remain with province’s top court after that date if the matter is not settled by then. Usually, the courts keep an order in the field suspended while hearing the matter at hand and in this case, the delay would keep blocking PML-N, PTI and PML-Q’s moves.

Interesting as it may sound, while the PTI wants to dissolve the assemblies, the PML-Q – despite being an ally and frequently vowing that it would dissolve assembly if Imran says so – wishes to stay in power. As such the latter is trying its best to convince PTI to back away from its plans of throwing away power in two provinces. Meanwhile, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and its allies are currently busy adding fuel to the fire by resorting to moves that could delay the whole process so that they don’t have to go for polls before October 2023.

At the moment, the only beneficiary of the current political circus is PML-Q’s Elahi faction, which is ruling the province with only 10 seats as its 10 votes have the power to make or break both the PML-N-led alliance and the PTI. Both sides had offered the CM slot to Elahi but the Elahi faction had jumped ship back in April when it suddenly joined hands with PTI despite agreeing with PML-N-led ruling alliance a night before that it would stay with it. Since then, the Elahi faction has been manoeuvring things not only extending its rule in the province but divulging on seat-adjustment formula with PTI for the next elections.

Currently, Elahi is in a position where he even dictates PTI chief Imran Khan. During his speech along with two chief ministers, when Imran lambasted the former military ruler Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, it drew harsh reaction from Elahi as he denounced Imran’s allegations against the ex-military czar; reminded him that Bajwa frequently helped him and threatened to give a rebuttal if anyone spoke a word against Bajwa again.

As surprising as it may seem, political observers have long been saying that Elahi was not in favour of dissolving assembly and that the speech provided him the opportunity to vent his anger at Imran. They say the court ruling halting the dissolution of the assembly has given an edge to Elahi as well as an opportunity to all sides to come up with something that suits the interests of the people. But that doesn’t seem to be a priority on any side.

They say that the people of Pakistan deserve the kind of government(s) that they can count on but the on-going tussle and the desire to rule the country between the political parties has been nothing but a political circus that is badly hurting the provinces, the country and its people. Not a day goes by when the political leadership doesn’t find itself embroiled in unnecessary crisis, especially, when terrorism is disrupting the hard-earned peace, the country is on the verge of default, its kitty is empty, the rupee is losing its value, prices of petroleum products are on the rise and the people are crushed under inflation.

Elections are being portrayed as if they would solve all these problems in a blink of an eye but what if there is another hung parliament after fresh elections; who will then be blamed for the crises we are in and would continue to face in the coming years because of the political choice we make today. Without a doubt, the political show must go but not the political circus as the country can’t bear the brunt of it anymore. The bigger question that begs to be answered is how long the political leadership will take to solve its problem by sitting across the table instead of just continuing wrangling to satisfy their egos.

In order to reduce the toxicity dominating the political discourse it is imperative for the political class to let go of their egos to the larger national interest; stop being hostage to petty political gains; and starting seeing the bigger picture. For political leadership, it’s time to stand united and discard the mind-set that can’t see beyond tactical gains in the larger interest of democracy and the country.

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