Mar 11, 2009

A new coalition?

WITH the lawyers’ long march scheduled to kick off in a couple of days, the battle for the Punjab government has become frenzied. The PPP is working overtime to rope in the PML-Q perhaps in the hope that once the numbers game is settled the PML-N will be stripped of its assertion that it is the rightful claimant to power in the province. If the PPP succeeds, some of the pressure to immediately lift governor’s rule in Punjab may dissipate. (The imposition of governor’s rule by President Zardari has proved very divisive with key coalition partners demanding its withdrawal. Yesterday Prime Minister Gilani, on whose advice governor’s rule was imposed, also came out against the move.) Moreover, the federal government may then be more confident in taking a hard line against the long march, which has assumed ominous overtones ever since an aggrieved PML-N has thrown its weight fully behind the march.

Until now the most obvious stumbling block between a PPP-PML-Q coalition in Punjab has been the Q-league’s forward bloc which has vowed to support the PML-N. Because the combined strength of the PPP and PML-Q in the Punjab Assembly barely crosses the threshold of a simple majority, the PML-Q must vote en masse for the PPP if a coalition is to be formed between the two parties. Talk of compensating for the loss of the PML-Q forward bloc with a forward bloc carved out of the PML-N is premature and in any case seems likely to founder on the constitutional defection clause. If rebels vote against their party on the election of a chief minister, the constitution provides for the head of the parliamentary party to move for the disqualification of those members. Disqualification is a long-drawn-out process which must wend its way through the assembly, the election commission and finally, if the disqualified members so choose, the Supreme Court. In the meantime, a government formed with the support of forwards blocs will operate under a great cloud of legal and moral uncertainty. And if the eventual result is in fact disqualification, by-elections will have to be fought against a PML-N that will be confident of its support among Punjab’s voters.

Clearly then both the PPP and PML-Q will want their respective parties to fully back a coalition. For the moment, the PML-Q has not been able to win back the dissidents who support the PML-N but this may change if the enticements offered are tempting enough. Pakistani politics is never one for the faint-hearted, but the tricky permutations being worked out against a backdrop of a teetering economy and rampaging militants are deeply worrisome. Busy fighting yet another internecine battle, the politicians will certainly be distracted from other national crises. At the moment though, none of them appears to care.

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