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August 25, 2018

Dilemma of a ‘strong opposition’


August 25, 2018

On paper, it is by far the strongest opposition since 1988, but on ground, it is the weakest one, which emerged as a result of July-25 election. They are more against each other than against the government, something which suits Prime Minister Imran Khan-led ruling coalition. And unless he commits too many mistakes, particularly in his first 100 days, he is unlikely to face any serious challenge.

Any opposition with around 150 MNAs and majority in the Senate could cause lots of problem for the ruling party. On paper, the joint opposition consisted of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Awami National Party (ANP) and others. On the other hand, the ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) enjoys the support of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), Balochistan National Party (BNP) and others.

A united opposition could have brought chairman Senate and a strong presidential candidate and made the election a real contest. However, all is not well in the opposition camp, though they have agreed to meet on Saturday (today).

The ruling coalition clearly has an upper hand in the last one month (July 25 to August 25) as it easily won the speaker, deputy speaker and the PM elections. It also did not face any major resistance in the election of the CM Punjab. The difference was the unity in the ruling camp and division in the opposition camp.

However, there are question marks over Imran's selection of the provincial captains of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP). All in the PTI, or in coalition, are not very much convinced, but they accepted PM's decision. His cabinet mostly comprising old guards also indicate that the premier went for experience or adjustments rather than merit.

The opposition on the other hand demonstrated their weaknesses and differences. Firstly, they rejected Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) proposal for not taking oath, followed by clear division in the prime minister's elections. The key opposition leader, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif and former president, Asif Ali Zardari, are not even on talking terms as they refused to shake hands when they met with their common rival Imran Khan, with a smiling face.

For the first time, Zardari never looked a man of reconciliation and whoever had stopped Shahbaz Sharif not to shake hands with him succeeded in creating further split. Shahbaz Sharif’s other problem is the weak control he has on his own party. A statement by PML-N leader, Pervaiz Rasheed that Aitzaz should first apologise to Nawaz Sharif only went in favour of the PTI.

No wonder why the PTI leader, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the other day supported Aitzaz Ahsan and advised the PPP not to withdraw him. His statement is certainly an attempt to keep the opposition divided and Pervaiz Rasheed’s latest remarks may not help the opposition.

In the post-PM election scenario, the opposition parties realised that on ground they looked very weak and divided. Hence some leaders on both sides tried to break the ice, and made an attempt to reach a consensus on a joint candidate in the presidential election. Can they do it is a big question?

The PPP has already nominated senior party leader, Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, as its candidate. But, as Farhatullah Babar had said, it’s not final. The PML-N, which has not nominated anyone until now, is disappointed with the PPP for betraying it during the premier's election and expressed its reservations over Aitzaz Ahsan’s nomination.

Sources said that Shahbaz Sharif, who met his brother Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz in Adiala on the second day of Eid, discussed the issue and the PML-N relationship with the PPP. Even if the two parties agree on a joint candidate, there is a remote chance that this unity would last long as there are issues which are keeping them apart.

For instance, it may be difficult for the PPP or even for the MMA, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami, to demand the release of former premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz. However, they may agree on demanding a fair trial. Both can agree on the trial of former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

It is also unlikely that the opposition parties agree on joining the PML-N fresh campaign ‘Justice for Sharif’, but can demand accountability of all. Chaudhry Aitzaz, a veteran politician, has its own merits and demerits to become a joint candidate. There is no doubt that Aitzaz is a very articulate person, a seasoned lawyer and parliamentarian. He was not only the leading force behind lawyer's movement but also during Nawaz Sharif's long march from Lahore to Islamabad in 2009, for restoration of judges, and as a result Mr Zardari got angry with him.

His differences with Nawaz Sharif started after 2014. It was more between him and former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, than with former premier. Nawaz Sharif never wanted break-up of his relationship either with Aitzaz or even with Zardari.

In the post-Panama scenario, their relationship practically came to an end and some of Aitzaz’s personal remarks hurt Sharif. But, Aitzaz still considers Maryam Nawaz a real potential for the PML-N.

What alternative the PML-N has if they don't agree on him, and whether the PPP is ready to drop his name. The PML-N already has soft corner for Mian Raza Rabbani, but Zardari has problems with nominating him. He was an ultimate choice for Senate chairmanship, but his name was dropped. Now, can the PML-N once again propose his name. The other choice could be Farhatullah Babar, veteran PPP leader from KP.

The MMA, comprising JUI-F, JI and other religious parties, may propose the name of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who had also acquired nomination papers for presidential election.

The PPP has already supported Shahbaz Sharif as leader of the opposition in a bid to defuse tension with the PML-N, and three key leaders of the party, Syed Khursheed Shah, Raza Rabbani and Farhatullah Babar, who enjoyed respect in the PML camp, met Shahbaz and others to remove their differences.

This meeting was a welcome sign, particularly after Asif Ali Zardari's refusal to meet PML-N delegation, which many believe did not go well in the opposition camp and looked more personal matter than political.

Such a disjointed opposition can't pose any serious threat to the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. If Imran Khan and the PTI play their cards well and do not commit too many mistakes, there seem no opposition parties coming close to each other. It is likely that they would not reach any accord on common points even if they agree on a joint presidential candidate.

For the PML-N, the main issue is how to get Nawaz, Maryam and Capt (retd) Safdar out of prison. It was disappointed the way the court deferred the matter after reserving the verdict on suspension of their sentence.

But, the PML-N has its own problems and it still has not been able to come out of its pre-election confusion over party's narrative, which caused serious dent in the party ranks and confusion among voters.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government should consider themselves very lucky to see a strong opposition looking so weak on ground. It’s like 'divided they stand, united they fall’, kind of opposition.

Circumstances often unite the most divided opposition, as happened in 1977 and in 1983. Even in 2006, the two archrivals, the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, signed the Charter of Democracy, as a way forward. The agreement also got the support of other opposition parties before the NRO caused the first damage. But, Benazir succeeded in convincing Nawaz to return and contest elections.

In the last 10 years, differences have sharpened despite PPP got the tag of a ‘friendly opposition’ and as a result it suffered. If one man, who has exploited this situation well and emerged as the most powerful leader, is Imran Khan. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it was Imran and the PTI, which filled the vacuum and not Zardari and the PPP. Now, they have to start from the beginning like in 2006, when both Benazir and Nawaz Sharif admitted their mistakes and how they were used against each other, if they really want to pose any challenge to strong Imran Khan.

  The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

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