Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has decided to take a vote of confidence from the parliament after his finance minister, Hafeez Shaikh, lost the Senate election to the opposition’s candidate, former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
The development is significant as it opens many avenues for the opposition when it comes to weakening the government further.
Votes for the Senate, the upper house of Pakistan’s parliament, are cast by members of the National Assembly, or the lower house, and four provincial assemblies.
The fact that Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)’s candidate was able to win the capital’s only general Senate seat, despite the government’s majority in the parliament, shows not all is well in the ruling party’s ranks. With a vote of no confidence against Khan’s finance minister, the government’s own allies and party workers have sent a message to the leadership that they are not content with how the government is being run. For over a year now, the ruling party’s lawmakers have expressed reservations over Khan’s inaccessibility or lack of contact with them.
On many occasions, the ruling party’s allies have threatened to give up support for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the parliament over accusations of being neglected in the government. These divisions have expanded over the last few months, independent of the opposition’s recent pressure on the government and threats to launch a “long march” to remove Khan from power. For instance, on numerous occasions, Khan had to directly intervene to mediate among his party’s ministers over allegations of interference in each other’s ministries. On other occasions, the party’s ideologues have not approved an outsider’s growing role within the party’s ranks and the government.
The Senate win gives the PDM an important symbolic gain as the capital’s seat was being seen as a referendum against the government. One of the reasons that the government was striving to get an approval for the open ballot from the courts was because it feared opposition from its own lawmakers. The result of the secret balloting has shown that the PTI’s government may already be a minority government as many lawmakers evidently do not support it.
For Khan, after the loss of Hafeez Shaikh’s seat, the only way forward was to seek a vote of confidence from the parliament to deflect speculation that the government is not in control of the legislature anymore. It is possible that the opposition could have brought a motion of no confidence once they were able to ensure the support of some lawmakers from within the ruling party’s ranks to oust Khan.
Khan’s decision to seek a vote of confidence, before the opposition brings up the issue, is bold but full of risks. A vote of confidence in the parliament happens via open balloting, whereby every lawmaker has to publicly record his support or opposition. This gives the government some level of assurance that its lawmakers and allies wouldn’t dare oppose it publicly and it can win the vote easily. A win then can restore Khan’s control over the government at least for the foreseeable future and take away the opposition’s point-scoring game and neutralize claims that the PTI is leading a minority government.
But this is not going to be a cakewalk for Khan even though the voting process has to take place openly. In fact, this offers the opposition a perfect platform to bleed the government further and put a brake on the government’s optimism following the PDM’s failure to build pressure on the government over the last few months.
At this point, there is not any clarity on the security establishment’s position in this entire play. There are two assumptions here about the military’s role in the Senate election. One, if the security establishment was supporting the ruling party, it would have ensured its win in the capital seat. Now that it has not happened, does it mean the military is not supporting the government anymore? Two, does the opposition’s win means the military wants reconciliation with them and that even taking a neutral position could have given enough support to the PDM to implement their plans in the Senate election?
What is also possible is that the establishment doesn’t want to be seen as supporting the government as that has caused significant grief for the military through public naming and shaming in the recent past. If that is the case, then we may see Khan facing a shock when hands are raised to show confidence in his abilities to lead the government. It is possible that the opposition will reach out to disgruntled lawmakers of the ruling party and its allies for support in the coming days. There are many things that the opposition can offer to these lawmakers.
There are already rumors that the opposition is willing to offer party tickets to the ruling party’s lawmakers in the next election if they support their move in the parliament. It should not be forgotten that not all lawmakers that are part of the ruling party are its loyalists. Many of them only joined Khan because such a move could favor their political fortunes. If offered a better deal, they wouldn’t mind deserting the ruling party in favor of the opposition, which is eyeing an election after the Senate vote. In this context, it doesn’t make a difference whether the vote of confidence is via open balloting or not. For many in the ruling party, the development opens an opportunity for them to switch sides and negotiate their political future with other parties.
Khan has certainly emerged weaker after the Senate vote and his own party has played a significant role in it. No one can surely say that this government will complete its constitutionally guaranteed tenure. The PDM has found an opening to attack Khan from within and they may not need a long march anymore. It is not clear when the vote of confidence is going to take place but whenever it happens, anything is possible.
With additional reporting by the Associated Press.