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May 25, 2019

Beyond Iftar politics


May 25, 2019

Amid the rising cost of living and continuing turmoil in the financial market, the opposition seems to be fastening its seatbelts in anticipation of a popular reaction against the ‘failures’ of the government of PM Imran Khan.

Breaking their political fast at the Iftar dinner hosted by PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the opposition parties have finally decided to get into high gear against the government. The question still is: will they?

Breaking her convenient silence after losing any hope for some kind of relief for her ailing father in prison, Maryam Nawaz came out of her hibernation to energize the opposition gathering by reviving former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s forgotten mantra of “giving respect to the vote”. For starters, under the leadership of the next generation leaders of the two rival political dynasties, the opposition is weighing its options and will take some decisions about its objectives and direction at an all-parties moot to be convened by JUI-F chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman after the Eid holidays. The timing will be crucial as it will coincide with the make or break budget of the regime being prepared under the tutelage of the IMF by its ex-officials.

With inflation soaring, unemployment increasing amid slowing down of growth, the people are likely to respond to the call of the opposition. Whether the occasion of a supposedly tougher budget would provide a nodal point to fuel the opposition’s tirade is not yet clear. It will, however, be able to offer a hot spot to the fireworks of a besieged opposition.

The opposition ranks, the PML-N in particular, have been in disarray due to the dark shadow of accountability over the House of Sharifs. Apparently, the ailing senior Sharif allowed a free hand to PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif to strike some kind of ‘arrangement’. Shehbaz, however, failed to deliver and couldn’t get any relief – neither for his elder brother nor for himself, as Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to have had successfully stonewalled all such moves. Rather than getting a bailout for his elder brother, Shehbaz himself got caught up in cases. Since he was reluctant to lead his party or the opposition in their coming plans, Shehbaz preferred to escape rather than hold his ground.

As Bilawal Bhutto courageously and articulately tried to fill the void created with the PML-N’s paralysis, the PML-N – having failed to get any relief – was left with no choice but to stand up to build some pressure for a bit of breathing space. Given the vacillations of the Sharifs in the past, it is not clear whether they will uphold a principled democratic position or once again use the pressure of the opposition to find a way out of their current predicaments.

On the other hand, even though former president Asif Ali Zardari tried to manoeuvre his way out of the accountability net, he showed greater resilience in facing the odds with a brave face. Unlike Maryam, who is dependent on her father and yet not prepared to assert herself vis-a-vis her uncle, Bilawal has an edge for asserting his political authority for being the de jure chairman of the PPP and a natural heir to his charismatic mother. He has preferred to be seen following his illustrious mother’s legacy, rather than the power games being played by his father. In the absence of the leader of the opposition, he has quite impressively emerged as an effective and principled substitute to the ruling ideologically confusing phony populism.

Both the PPP and the PML-N have been long rivals and nurse deeper suspicions about each other. While the PML-N has no chance to challenge the PPP in Sindh, the PPP still has half a chance to revive its previous standing in Punjab. The paralysis of the PML-N in Punjab in the post-election period and withering of some shine of Imran Khan’s populism allowed young Bilawal some space to elevate the PPP at the national level. Despite their rivalries and mutual suspicions, the combined opposition with two young leaders in the forefront can pose as a strong challenger to the flip-flop government of Imran Khan, who still somehow remains personally popular among his many followers.

But, even if the opposition resolves to fight back, the real question would be: what will they be taking to the streets for? Will they be looking for early elections or a regime change or an end to what they call a witch-hunt in the name of accountability?

Bringing down the government at this stage seems to be a premature option; it will either make the current ruling party a martyr or bring in an unconstitutional rule. Even an in-house change will not be a lucrative option for the opposition, given the prevailing economic meltdown. The PML-N and the PPP, in particular, will be interested in shedding the pressure on their leaders. There is a unanimous feeling across all political divides to soften the accountability law and clip the wings of NAB. The purpose of this ongoing ‘accountability’ has already been achieved. There is still room for political musical chairs, and there are aspirants like Shehbaz Sharif.

Like any situation there is an X factor: a spontaneous popular reaction by the people against their current economic plight. Not surprisingly, the parties of the status quo are worried about the possibilities of a mass outburst which could bring the real issues of the working masses and systemic exploitation and plunder at the centre of politics in the country. With the abortion of the democratic movement at the hands of the three ruling parties and successive governments, there is a greater void for people-centric politics. The people of this country have seen enough of populist, authoritarian and conservative politics and they yearn for true emancipation.

The system has become so rotten that it requires fundamental transformation. A new type of progressive democratic leadership is needed for a real people’s democracy and a new treatise for people’s wholesome development as equal human beings. Till then we are condemned to live on the wages of deceptive politics tuned to the interests of various ruling elites, unless people rise to the occasion and set a new direction for the state of Pakistan.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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