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Editorial: Too Late for Talks?

P.M. Sharif’s rejection of Imran Khan’s offer for dialogue signals the trouble facing the PTI after the May 9 riots

by Editorial

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Rejecting calls for dialogue from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said that while dialogue is key to evolving democracy, it cannot be held with “anarchists and arsonists” in the garb of politicians. In a subsequent address to his supporters, Khan retorted that a strong government must have the people’s backing and not rely on the support of the “establishment.” Asserting that the country’s institutions were being destroyed because they had been directed to demolish his party, he claimed this was aimed at forming a new “king’s party” that would include the politicians who have deserted the PTI after the May 9 riots.

It is clear from the gulf between these two statements that there is no longer any possibility of talks amidst a conflict deeply rooted in self-interest. Sharif has traditionally sought good ties with the Army to counter the acrimony of his elder brother Nawaz, and sees this as a path to avoiding early elections that Khan is convinced he will sweep despite the May 9 riots. With the PTI now under the pressure of “accountability” from the government and military both, rumors abound of the possibility of delaying elections even beyond the expiry of the National Assembly’s five-year constitutional term—a potential windfall for a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) hammered by a cratering economy and the potential of the electorate “punishing” it in polls.

Ironically, the current situation appears to be a flip of events that played out in 2017-18, when the PMLN was on the back-foot while the PTI was on the rise. At the time, many in the Army looked romantically to a “brave” Khan, lionizing him for his foreign policy bravado, even as they facilitated the ouster of “cowardly” prime ministers. What marked Khan’s downfall was his tenure in government, which saw the establishment seeking more “flexibility” in the country’s foreign policy while the former prime minister alienated traditional allies. Another factor was Khan’s inability to tackle dreaded corruption, which actually increased in the PTI’s government, with multiple reports alleging it had even creeped into the prime minister’s own household. If history is any indication, Khan will remain on the outs with the Army in the short-term to the benefit of the parties comprising the ruling coalition still fearing elections. Unfortunately for Pakistan, neither of these options benefit a country that most needs sustained civilian supremacy to see-through reforms essential to prosperity.

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