ISSN 2330-717X

Pakistan’s Political Opposition Pulls Itself Apart – Analysis


By Colin Cookman*

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition of opposition parties challenging the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)-led government, celebrated the start of March with an upset victory in senate elections. But subsequent fractures within the movement have led to its collapse. The opposition’s initial success was followed by losses in leadership elections for the new senate body and widening disputes between the member parties over how to proceed with their campaign against the government.

While both sides appear to be in shaky positions, the PTI has shored up its narrow governing majority, and the opposition, while potentially still able to obstruct, appears to lack the cohesion necessary to fully wrest control of parliament from the government.

The PTI came into office following the 2018 general elections in Pakistan with a relatively narrow base of support, ousting the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government that preceded it after a series of corruption cases and legal battles entangled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and ultimately led to his ousting from office. The PML-N and other opposition parties accuse the powerful Pakistani military establishment of backing the PTI’s rise and have attempted to mobilise against Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The PDM umbrella coalition was officially formed in September 2020, after which it proceeded to hold a series of street demonstrations and rallies against the government. While the opposition’s criticism of the PTI government’s electoral legitimacy and its management of the ailing Pakistan economy were ramping up, it lacked a clear mechanism through which to achieve its goal of toppling Khan, who rebuffed calls for his resignation and lambasted his opponents as corrupt political failures.

The senate elections held on 3 March marked a potential inflection point for the government and opposition. Despite numerical superiority in the national and provincial assemblies, whose members form the electorate for the senate, the PTI failed to secure a majority of senate seats in a secret ballot vote. Most surprisingly, acting finance minister Hafeez Sheikh’s loss of a senate seat for the capital territory of Islamabad suggested that Khan’s government could lack a durable governing majority in the national assembly if defectors withdrew their support.

Yet all members of the PTI coalition publicly reaffirmed support for Khan’s government in a confidence vote held shortly afterwards. The opposition were unable to line up the numbers necessary for a direct challenge to the Prime Minister and boycotted the vote.

On 12 March, the PTI’s nominee for the chairmanship of the new senate, incumbent Sadiq Sanjrani, was re-elected in another secret ballot vote, this time despite the combined opposition camp holding the greater number of seats in the senate. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), whose candidate former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani defeated Sheikh in the Islamabad election but failed to unseat Sanjrani for the chairmanship, unsuccessfully mounted legal challenges in response to his loss. Gilani’s failure to secure the senate chairmanship — and the larger margin of defeat for the opposition’s candidate for the senate deputy chairman position — shows that defection risks cut both ways for the government and opposition.

Having failed to win the senate chairmanship, Gilani instead took the opposition leadership position in the upper house on 26 March, breaking an earlier agreement that the role would go to a PML-N candidate and deepening the divisions within the PDM. Those disputes have now led to the PDM’s fracture, as the PPP and its ally the Awami National Party have backed out of the group.

While disputes over the leadership elections offered the proximate cause of the PDM’s breakup, the strains within the group derive from the deeper competing priorities of its member parties. Nawaz Sharif, leading the PML-N from exile in London, and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam party, led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman (the JUI-F), had pushed for mass resignations by lawmakers and more confrontational tactics against Prime Minister Khan and the Pakistani military establishment. But the PPP has been loath to cede control of the provincial government it leads in Sindh and has instead argued for working through the assemblies and other institutions in an attempt to split the ruling coalition. Some PML-N leaders have in turn publicly accused the PPP of seeking an alliance with the military establishment as a means of securing a route to power.

Divided over strategy due to their differing incentives, and now split into multiple competing opposition blocs, the remnants of the PDM appear unlikely to be able to force major concessions from the government or its supporters at this time. But actors outside the formal political system also retain the capability to disrupt and challenge the government, as seen most recently when the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan religious movement clashed with police across several major Pakistani cities.

The PTI government also faces the challenges of managing rising inflation, slow economic growth and a still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On 29 March, Hafeez Sheikh was removed as finance minister as part of an ongoing cabinet shakeup, leaving the future of Pakistan’s recently renewed agreement with the IMF uncertain. Even with its major domestic political rivals split among themselves, the PTI’s narrow majorities in parliament will limit the government’s ability to push through significant legislation or constitutional amendments, forcing it to rely on executive ordinances and other administrative or extra-legislative powers. While Prime Minister Khan’s tenure appears set to continue for now, Pakistan’s historical pattern of single-term governments suggests that he remains vulnerable to future challenges or defection risks.

*About the author: Colin Cookman is a Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace. All views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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