In the wake of the disputed elections, political parties in the opposition had much on their platter. Despite having a strong appetite, they have chosen to be off their food, as they fear they may bite more than they can chew. Notwithstanding probable sporadic episodes of ruckus in parliament, like the one we witnessed on the afternoon of August 17, the PTI government is likely to witness smooth sailing.
A recalcitrant opposition continues to be on the horns of several dilemmas. The first of the dilemmas that it faced soon after the election results were announced was whether to take oath in the new assemblies that, going by their thesis, were the creation of massive rigging, or stay away from them. Although all the losing parties were at one in putting the credibility of the entire electoral exercise under question, they demurred on the proposed way forward. Larger parties – the PML-N and the PPP – wanted to be part of the parliamentary process, whereas smaller parties – notably the JUI-F – wished to boycott it.
If the rigging narrative were considered right by the parties, then the stance of the smaller parties was right. The larger parties, which wanted to eat their cake and have it too, were logically inconsistent. But power, rather than abstract principles or logical consistency, rules the world of politics. Therefore, the larger parties had their way.
What accounts for the split between the smaller parties on the one hand and larger parties on the other? For one thing, the smaller parties didn’t have much stake in the post-election game of numbers. They won only a handful of seats, having been comprehensively beaten in their strongholds. On top of that, their top leadership couldn’t make it to parliament. The JUI-F or the ANP may have favoured a different strategy had Maulana Fazlur Rehman or Asfandyar Wali returned to the National Assembly. At the other end of the scale, the larger parties didn’t see the boycott as their optimal strategies.
The PPP has won more seats in the National Assembly than it did in 2013. Its maximum expected payoff was to secure a majority in the Sindh Assembly; it hit the bull’s eye. The icing on the cake was that the party’s top leadership made it to the assemblies.
The PPP may have seen eye-to-eye with the smaller parties had it been reduced to a minority party in the provincial assembly. Then there was the overall electoral outcome. The PTI is the single largest party in the National Assembly, but it falls well short of having a simple majority. The party had to win over independents and regional parties to get Imran Khan elected as prime minister. Despite all the wheeling and dealing, and favourable circumstances, Imran could secure only 176 votes, only four more than the required simple majority.
The new government’s (the PTI plus the allies) razor-thin majority in the National Assembly – they are in minority in the Upper House – leaves a lot of ground for political hobnobbing, an art in which Asif Zardari is only in his own league. As Zardari and his sister are in the dock over alleged money laundering, saving their necks has become the foremost priority for the PPP. Since joining hands with the PML-N would bring the knife closer to the duo, the PPP found it advisable to stab the former in the back by turning its back on Shahbaz Sharif’s candidature for the office of prime minister. The PPP’s decision to stay ‘neutral’ sounded the death knell for the attempts to put in place a grand opposition alliance.
The PPP’s support to the PML-N wouldn’t have altered the outcome of the election for the leader of the house. All the same, it would have created a semblance of unity in the opposition’s ranks. But in the circumstances, the PPP is dead set against letting such a semblance take shape. Not surprisingly, the party put forward its nominee for the ceremonial office of the president without consulting other political parties.
The PPP has also set its eyes on the future. The alliance with smaller or regional parties is normally difficult to keep intact, because they eye a greater share of the pie. At times, their demands (such as the recovery of the missing persons in Balochistan), other than having a disproportionate share in power, are difficult to meet. For sure, the PPP is eyeing such a scenario when dissensions break out in the ruling alliance and the PTI government is stampeded to lean on the former for survival. In that event, the PPP would chip in, of course, in the name of saving the democratic process, and may dictate the terms to the other side. Even an ordinary mortal can guess what those terms might be.
Now, let’s come to the PML-N. Since July 28, 2017 – the day Nawaz Sharif was given the boot by the apex court – the party has fallen between two stools: whether to buck the system (the senior Sharif’s narrative) or to reaffirm allegiance to the higher powers in a bid to propitiate them (the junior Sharif’s narrative). The party went into the polls while it was in two minds. Since Imran Khan was destined to become prime minister, the PML-N’s electoral defeat was all but certain. The party’s fortune wouldn’t have been revived, even if it had subscribed to Nawaz’s narrative hook, line, and sinker. But at the very least, it wouldn’t have left its workers and supporters punch-drunk.
With Nawaz disqualified for life and sent to prison, Shahbaz – who is also fending off corruption cases – is in control of the party. By his very nature, he is ill-suited to the task that the PML-N leadership faces at this critical juncture. Textbooks on management make a distinction between a leader and a manager. While managers are risk-averse and thus seek to preserve the status quo, leaders are willing to go through fire and water to become agents of change. Whereas managers rely on structures and processes, leaders focus on people.
Shahbaz, who – as fate would have it – is officially the leader of the opposition, maybe an outstanding manager, but he is well short of the qualities that go into the making of an effective leader. Hence, while throwing caution to the wind may be what the doctor ordered for the beleaguered PML-N, Shahbaz – like Zardari – believes in ducking, defending and waiting for the opportune moment, which may or may not arise, rather than take up the gauntlet upfront.
Given his proclivities, Shahbaz is not the right stuff for agitation politics. Hence, despite belabouring the rigging allegations, the PML-N isn’t likely to go the whole hog in opposing the government until it gets the right signals. Imran Khan may have acted indiscreetly, but he wasn’t off the mark when he, as prime minister-elect, threw up the gauntlet to the opposition to stage a prolonged sit-in. With the likes of Shahbaz and Zardari in the van, the opposition parties aren’t going to put the government through the hoop.
The opposition parties are now endeavouring to come up with a joint candidate for presidential election. Even if they succeed in doing so, the alliance between the PPP and the PML-N will remain subject to the prisoner’s dilemma: while cooperation may be in their mutual interest, each party has an incentive to sell the other a pup.
The writer is a freelance contributor.