In the past few weeks, Pakistan’s 11 opposition parties have come together to channelize public discontent from a newly built coalition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to send the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) packing. So far, PDM has staged mammoth power shows in country’s three provinces, out of four, drawing huge crowds and stage for a new season of a game of thrones is all set. Fiery opposition speeches, led mainly by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, directed against the military has alarmed the powerful establishment. Few believe that the way PDM has opted may push establishment to come to terms with the PDM and that PTI could be dethroned soon. However, there are 3 key reasons that accentuate PDM’s fate hangs in limbo.
Trust deficit and misadventures of Opposition
Ever since PTI culminated to power, it utilized National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to grill opponents, mainly the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which forced leading parties to join hands against what both call ‘one sided-accountability’. However, despite having similar objectives, both the PMLN and the PPP have remained wary of the others’ intentions and there exist a trust deficit. In his recent TV interview, the PMLN stalwart Khawaja Asif showed reservations in trusting the PPP co-Chairman Asif Zardari by saying “It is difficult for me to believe him [Zardari] even today”. Last year in May, Asif also skipped a dinner hosted by PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari because of his cold ties with Asif Zardari.
In August 2019, both parties vowed to remove Sadiq Sinjrani, the Senate Chairman, for the first time in the history of the Senate through a motion of no-confidence. Despite having majority in the Upper House with 67 against government’s 37 members, the opposition alliance failed after secret ballot were announced. Later, PMLN accused the PPP of dubious activity to save PPP’s hold on Sindh province.
Later in the same year, the two parties again asserted to launch agitation against PTI; this time around the PMLN and the PPP was joined by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF), a religious party aspirant of the fall of Khan Government. JUIF Chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman took on the lead accompanied by massive crowd from Karachi to Lahore and onwards to capital, Islamabad. The PMLN and the PPP joined Azadi march yet stepped back at a crucial stage when JUIF managed to tighten screws of the incumbent government. Both the PMLN and the PPP were reluctant to be part of an indefinite sit-in fearing they could face the same in future.
Absence of key leadership
Leading opposition parties such as the PMLN and the PPP are fighting the battle without key leadership which is either behind bars over corruption charges or is away from the country. PMLN’s supermo Nawaz Sharif is currently abroad in London for health-related reasons; his brother, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and former Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shahbaz, Leader of the Opposition in Punjab Assembly both are under NAB custody. Furthermore, many party bigwigs face NAB enquiries thereby keeping mum or are less active hoping to get some relief. Although Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz is steering the party well yet she has silent disapproval from within the party ranks over her sudden rise to key party position and his father’s critical narrative about few of the military generals. Besides, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) barred channels from airing speeches of Nawaz Sharif since the court termed him proclaimed offenders for his inability to appear before courts in several cases. This leaves only social media platform that can telecast Nawaz Sharif’s speech but a large chunk of silent PMLN vote bank doesn’t have the social media presence. Consequently, many remain unaware of the stance that Sharif has taken.
PPP’s co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari is also silent for deteriorating health conditions. He hasn’t appeared in any of the PDM power show nor has issued statements in this regard. Zardari, often described as a politician who keeps all cards intact, may not be a crowd puller but he is known for finding ways of reconciliation from even a bumpy road. Likewise, PPP’s frontrunner form Sindh and former leader of the opposition Khurshid Shah is also under NAB custody for the last 14 months.
Questioning the untouchables
Almost every party leader representing their respective parties vehemently criticized establishment and current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz for orchestrating the 2018 General Elections and swinging it in favor of Imran Khan. Nawaz Sharif went in lengths to call out COAS by name to accuse him for conspiring to remove him (Sharif) from premiership back in 2017 and pushing fake conspiracy charges against opposition leaders. It is common for opposition in Pakistan to criticize the incumbent government; it is, however, quite extraordinary and unprecedented that they confront the powerful military in such a direct manner. Doing so has irked generals, analysts believe, and that PDM has possibly shut the backchannels doors of negotiations. In the past, politicians have asked establishment for ousting ruling government and the latter often complied with it but, it is for the first time that the opposition is questioning establishment itself. It is highly unlikely that establishment will move on from Khan as it will weaken its grip on power and PDM will get the credit for removing Khan Government. Besides, neutral political observers believe that the way to power in Pakistan goes through establishment thereby making it uncomfortable means obstructing one’s own way.
The growing public discontentment with the PTI government over multiple issues ranging from skyrocketing inflation to unemployment and media curbs provides opposition a playing filed. But, establishment will never let loose its grip over power since the PTI was brought to power against all odds and it still remains blue-eyed government despite free falling of popularity graph. PDM’s successive rallies can push government on back-foot, and the momentum through intermittent large scale rallies could just keep the alliance alive and relevant on country’s political foray but, pressure, shaming, and criticism won’t necessarily be enough for establishment to withdraw support for PTI.
*Ameena Tanvir is a PhD scholar at the South Asian Center in Punjab University, Lahore. She tweets @AmeenaTanvir and can be reached at [email protected]