Punjab’s political crisis


By Maleeha Lodhi

Pakistan’s largest province and political heartland has been in the throes of a crisis for almost two months now and there is little sign of it being resolved any time soon. This has raged in the wake of Imran Khan’s ouster as prime minister through a no-confidence vote by an opposition coalition led by Pakistan Muslim League-N last month. It was followed by a similar effort by the opposition in Punjab to remove the chief minister who belonged to the then ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). This eventually led to the election of Hamza Shehbaz, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s son. But not before a good deal of delay and chaos.

When the provincial assembly was first convened for the vote on April 16, it failed to take place due to physical scuffles and disruption of the proceedings by PTI legislators and those of its ally PML-Q, whose leader Parvez Elahi was an aspirant for the CM’s post. The mayhem in the Punjab assembly was triggered by PTI lawmakers forcibly preventing the vote to elect the new chief minister. The deputy speaker was assaulted and rowdy scenes inside the House were telecast live and witnessed across the country. Proceedings were then delayed for days and voting took place only after the Lahore High Court’s intervention.

But this hardly marked an end to political turmoil in the province. The PTI governor Omar Sarfaraz Cheema then refused to administer the oath to Hamza on the grounds that the CM’s election was invalid. This left the province without a government for three weeks. When Hamza’s party secured an order from the Lahore High Court directing the president to nominate someone else to administer the oath, the National Assembly speaker finally swore in Hamza as chief minister on April 30. But he was unable to constitute his cabinet as the governor, who had to administer the oath to ministers, refused to step down and cooperate with him. He was subsequently de-notified by the federal cabinet division but refused to leave his post arguing that only the President could remove him. The president, for his part, declined to appoint a new governor as advised by the prime minister.

Governor Punjab Omar Sarfraz Cheema speaking at a press conference in Lahore. He is central point of political crisis at the moment.

For weeks this deadlock paralyzed the provincial administration. On the back of this came the Supreme Court judgment on May 17. The Court’s ruling on Article 63-A of the Constitution pronounced that the votes of dissident lawmakers could not be counted if cast in violation of their party position. The Election Commission followed with its decision to de-seat the 25 defecting legislators who had voted for Hamza as chief minister. PTI also moved to the Lahore High Court for his removal. A fresh election for the chief minister now seems likely even though Hamza has refused to step down. PML-N and the PTI/PML-Q alliance are again at loggerheads with both sides staking a claim to chief ministership. But if neither side is able to demonstrate a majority after two rounds of voting, the provincial assembly will stand dissolved. PML-N believes it could win in a run-off election. How stable such a government would be is open to question. Already, business in the Punjab government has ground to a halt and the crisis has cast a shadow on the stability of the government at the center.

As if this wasn’t enough, proceedings of the Punjab assembly were again thrown into chaos last week when it was hurriedly called, ostensibly to consider two votes of no-confidence – one against Speaker Parvez Elahi and the other against deputy speaker Dost Mazari. The assembly met on May 22 amid commotion with the police blocking the entrance. Again, scenes seen on television were of an assembly in lockdown, which PML-N leaders accused Elahi of ordering. When its doors opened, many legislators were still barred from entering. Then after a few minutes of proceedings, the speaker adjourned the assembly till June 8. Confusion reigned as Elahi claimed he had defeated the no-confidence move but with treasury MPs absent.

The unending political crisis in Punjab and the prospect of prolonged instability have a direct bearing on Prime Minister Sharif’s government, which itself rests on a very slim parliamentary majority. So long as this province of over 120 million people remains unsettled, it is hard to see how the federal government will be able to govern. This at a time when a worsening economy requires urgent and undivided attention from the Prime Minister. Pakistan needs immediate resumption of the IMF loan programme and access to financing to tackle its balance of payments crisis. The precarious macroeconomic situation, record current account deficit, depleting foreign exchange reserves, soaring inflation and shrinking value of the rupee have pushed the economy to the brink. Policy action to avert an economic collapse is now urgent. Further delay will exact an even heavier cost. Unless economic stability is given priority over politics, the country’s descent into a financial crisis will be inescapable.

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)