Why PDM’s resignation gamble could backfire

Political temperatures are high, and with the opposition parties’ anticipated announcement of resignations from the National Assembly, one can safely assume that there will be no respite. Following the fundamentals of politics, the opposition, under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is desperately endeavouring to gain traction by promising their supporters a swift victory which is not yet in sight, and for which a coordinated and calculated political struggle is essential.

However, it is apparent from the PDM press conference held on December 8th that the president of the PDM, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, has succeeded in convincing key opposition parties to tender their resignations from the National Assembly. As per the announcements made in the aforementioned press conference, opposition members, whose parties are a member of the PDM alliance, shall submit their resignations to their respective party leaders by December 31, 2020.

It is imperative to note that under Article 64 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a member may “by writing under his hand addressed to the Speaker… resign his seat, and thereupon his seat shall become vacant”.

At this juncture, two questions arise: (1) what will be the impact on PDM if a number of its members refuse to tender their resignations (2) what benefit could PDM potentially achieve if all the concerned opposition members follow suit and resign? The first question is that of a political nature, whereas the latter requires legal analysis.

It would not be wrong to assume that PDM will receive a devastating blow if around 20-30% of its members fail to submit their resignations. Not only will their narrative suffer but the pressure they are desperately attempting to mount on the incumbent government, with some degree of success, would also lose force. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government will instantly claim a moral victory, and its army of spokespersons, with the help of a very effective media cell, would mount a vicious attack against the opposition, without the fear of any repercussions. The likelihood of events being played out in a manner is entirely possible considering what happened during the no-confidence motion brought against the Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan recently.

If what has been narrated above does happen, the political uncertainty and upheaval that would follow must be understood and appreciated by the concerned quarters. PDM would be left with no other alternative but to commence a nationwide agitation movement in order to save face. All the red lines will be crossed by PDM’s leaders and no institution could possibly be expected to escape unscathed. As the Vice President of PML-N, Maryam Nawaz, has indicated, members who failed to tender their resignation could possibly expect their houses surrounded by angry party loyalists. The PTI government’s admitted failure to keep the inflation in check coupled with the sugar and flour crises could theoretically be exploited by the opposition parties.

The “Vote ko izat do” slogan could gain more popularity. As a strategic move, PDM may instigate riots in order to exert more pressure on the establishment. It will dedicate all its resources and political capital to ensure that its long march attracts a large number of crowds, with its final destination being D-Chock, Islamabad. And if the PTI government blunders into ordering the police force or other security agencies at its disposal to adopt confrontational and aggressive tactics to curtail PDM activists, as a consequence of which a precious life is lost, then the situation could become perilous.

This will not be a good position for PTI to be in, nor will the country benefit from such political uncertainty. Pakistan’s struggling economy, which is already on life support, might not be able to sustain or accommodate such a political cataclysm. Not to mention that our ongoing fight against Covid-19 will suffer greatly, causing our health sector to capitulate under pressure. The democratic powers must not forget that the “doctrine of necessity”, from which almost all the parties have benefited, is hanging over their heads like a sword. It is up to them to ensure that democracy prevails and if they fail in doing so, they will not be worthy of forgiveness.

Considering that better sense prevails and the opposition members are allowed to tender their resignations, without any external intervention whatsoever, PTI would be in a much better position. As per Article 58 of our Constitution, the President can dissolve the Parliament if so “advised by the Prime Minister” or where a no-confidence vote has been passed against the Prime Minister and “no other member of the National Assembly commands the confidence of the majority of the member of the National Assembly…”. If PTI plays its cards right and does not allow PDM to mount unsustainable pressure, there exists no reason which would compel Prime Minister Imran Khan to issue such advice to the president. Moreover, if all PDM members do resign from their seats, such a situation will not, rather, does not, give rise to a constitutional crisis.

As per Article 55 of our Constitution, the National Assembly shall only become defunct if during the sitting of the Assembly it is brought to the attention of the person presiding that less than “one-fourth” of the total members are in attendance. At present there are 332 seats in the National Assembly, which means if 83 members are present, the National Assembly will function as normal. Legally speaking, assuming that all members of PDM resign, along with, for argument’s sake, 30% or 40% of PTI members, it still would not have any effect on the legal standing of the prime minister or the PTI government. Moreover, for the sake of better understanding PTI’s legal position, if it is assumed that only 50 members of PTI are left in the National Assembly, whereas all other members of the National Assembly have resigned, it still would not matter as long as none of the remaining 50 members bring the quorum issue to the attention of the person presiding over the session.

In light of the above, a conclusion can be derived that PDM will not benefit a great deal from tendering resignations and, perhaps, has attached undue weightage to this strategy. At most, there will be some political consequences and questions may be raised with reference to the PTI government’s legitimacy to rule over the people of Pakistan. At best, if PDM follows through with the resignation strategy, the alliance of the parties under the banner of PDM would be strengthened and they will have no other option but to work together and for a common goal which in turn will make PDM more determined to send off the current government. On the contrary, PTI could potentially stall the resignation process as was done by the former Speaker, Mr Ayaz Sadiq, by requiring all the members to attend the Speaker’s office in order to verify their resignations. It seems that PTI is trying to test the waters and believes that PDM will not resign. If it does, they may be able to buy time and selectively accommodate and neutralise the treat.

In the end, no matter what route the opposition or the government takes, they will need to sit together and address their differences. Problems can only be solved through a consultative process which, unfortunately, no party is willing to pursue at this stage. The political vacuum continues to grow, allowing non-democratic forces to further strengthen their grip over the system. The only issue that all our political parties are concerned with is free and fair elections, which by no means is any less important than other issues. However, the said issue, like all other issues, can only be resolved through political will and with the purest of intentions, something which has been lacking among our political elite for decades.