Status quo or change

ISLAMABAD — The capital is once again gripped by fevered speculation. The new round of rumours was fuelled  further by a statement from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who termed the next three months as crucial. The premier’s heads-up might just have been about the economy, as the government is trying to stabilize its financial condition through painful measures amid a loud public outcry over inflation. A new agreement with the International Monetary Fund is also expected to be announced within this period. However, sensationalism is an essential staple of the political life of any capital, and Islamabad is no exception. The timeframe of the next few months was therefore taken as some make-or-break period during which the fate of the current government would be decided — and sealed. 
Opposition political parties have intensified their activity and there has been a flurry of meetings between various party heads. An array of options about how prime minister Imran Khan can be removed from power is being discussed. Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have been in talks with much more urgency. The politics of rallies and long marches towards the capital is also making a comeback. 

Much of the uncertainty owes itself also to the recent turbulence between the government and the military over the appointment of the intelligence chief. Many observers concluded that the disagreement between the two power centers would not settle easily and lead to far more lethal consequences. The new intelligence chief Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum has also conducted himself in stark contrast from his predecessor. The high visibility has been reduced drastically and much of the work is being done in the shadows, true to the actual spirit of a spy agency. 

The impression that the Establishment has now distanced itself from the ruling party is also compounded by the relative ease with which critical voices and opposition figures are finding airtime and mea culpas of prominent talk show hosts, who were earlier staunch supporters of the ruling party, have become a recurring theme.

Several opposition politicians now take delight in the alleged neutrality of the Establishment. Finally, they feel the government’s Achilles heel has been exposed. There are also hushed whispers that disagreements persist over the next important appointment of the power calculus, and that this will cast a dark and fateful cloud over the relationships between the major stakeholders. 

Two possible scenarios have found more currency among the speculations about the political future: 
A no-confidence motion by the opposition political parties. 2) A forward bloc springs up in the next few months, citing growing public dissatisfaction over the rising cost of living and the government’s alleged mishandling of the economy, and will force a change at the top. 

Some opposition members say that in the absence of support from the powerful quarters, the government will find it very difficult to maintain its already thin majority in the parliament. 

Ruling party members and allied partners, however, insist that scratch beneath the surface and beyond the fevered pitch of talk about change, the opposition’s optimism is misplaced. Status quo will continue and there will be no change, they predict. 

Disagreements between PPP and PML-N over the new setup continue to stymie the opposition’s momentum. PPP is still saddled by the governance failure of its past tenure. The power tussle of PML-N has had a debilitating effect on the party’s ability to come up with an effective and consistent narrative. There have been grumblings by allied parties of the government, but they have been placated after a brief interlude of complaints and grievances. The allied political parties have reaffirmed their commitment to work with the ruling party in recent meetings with the prime minister.  

A constant refrain among the ruling party and its allied members is about the lack of an alternative. Even if the powers-that-be want a change, the ability to enforce it with the tools of the past is greatly diminished, they say. 

But true to every government in the twilight of its tenure, the treasury benches seem to have fallen into a false sense of security. The popularity of the ruling party has taken a sharp hit in recent months. Denials about the plummeting popularity are self-delusional. The tragedy of the ruling party is that before 2018, the PTI seemed understanding and empathetic about the public’s concerns — most of all, capable of solving those problems. Now, it sounds disconnected, tone-deaf, bungling, and full of hubris. The Murree episode where 22 people lost their lives is an example of how far-removed and unprepared the government was found not only in averting a tragedy but in dealing with its aftermath. 

The stormy session of the parliamentary committee Thursday is an indication of the tough times ahead. Prime Minister Imran Khan will increasingly face a hostile, impatient public, and pressure from within will build up.

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