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October 30, 2020

The new normal

Opinion

October 30, 2020

The spectacle of top leadership of the PPP and the PML-N sharing the stage at public meetings in Gujranwala and Karachi has generated mixed reactions.

The supporters of the ruling PTI dismiss it as a collusion of the ‘corrupt’ to escape accountability – pure and simple. In the eye of the people on the other side of the political divide, it’s an unmistakable sign of the coming of age of the political class, which has finally set aside its differences to make a common cause for strengthening democracy. To many who sit on the fence, the PPP-PML-N alliance is essentially unstable and will welt in the heat of the prisoners’ dilemma.

However we look upon it, the coming closer of the two major political parties, which in the past remained staunch adversaries – and may become so again in future – is born of the changed structure of Pakistan’s political market.

Since the revival of democracy in 2002, politics in Pakistan has represented a triangular fight. The PPP and the -Q and -N factions of the PML were the three players during 2002-07. The -Q faction was the king’s party comprising largely PML-N dissidents. As a rule, the king’s party being a contrivance holds as long as the royal patronage is available. Once that umbrella is pulled off and such parties are left to fend for themselves, they tend to fall apart.

In the last couple of years of his rule, an increasingly unpopular General Pervez Musharraf had made up his mind to throw the PML-Q on the scrapheap and curry favour with the PPP, which ushered in the promulgation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Having been left on its own, the PML-Q predictably took a pounding in the 2008 elections. The PPP formed the government at the centre, while the PML-N was back at the helm in Punjab.

For a moment it appeared that breaking the political duopoly was a tall order and that the country was returning to the bi-party system that characterized politics during the 1990s. But that turned out to be an error of judgment. The PTI, which until then had been a political non-entity shunned by the movers and shakers, suddenly began to draw political heavyweights one after the other to its folds. From being the head of virtually a one-man party, Imran Khan became one of the most sought-after political leaders. The political duopoly was showing signs of giving place to an oligopoly.

An industry characterized by a duopoly offers a narrow range of choices to the customers, who have to go for one of the suppliers. If it isn’t Boeing, it must be Airbus; if it isn’t Visa, it has to be MasterCard; if it isn’t Pepsi Cola, it must be Coca-Cola. By the same token, a duopolistic political market leaves the stakeholders with a limited choice. If it isn’t one party, it must be the other.

Hence, during the 1990s, in a game of musical chairs the PPP and the PML-N took turns in the exercise of power. In 1990, the PPP government was sacked only to bring the PML-N in power. In 1993, the PML-N government was shown the door only to induct the PPP in power – and so on. In the singular context of Pakistani politics, the arbiters of last resort couldn’t afford to throw overboard both the parties at the same time. They had to put their money on one of them. Another implication of the duopolistic political structure was that the PPP and the PML-N would remain at daggers drawn. A pact like the Charter of Democracy (CoD) could not see the light of the day. Such were the rules of the game, which were obvious to all.

The entry of the third player in the political market upends the simple duopolistic model. Now the stakeholders have more strings to their bow. Instead of being constrained to choose ‘A’ or ‘B,’ they can turn their back on both and fix on ‘C.’ They can also afford to direct their guns towards both A and B at the same time without having to upset the existing applecart.

Likewise, the rise of the PTI meant that in the event that the PML-N fell out of favour with the arbiters, the PPP wouldn’t essentially be the principal beneficiary. With Nawaz Sharif known for cutting his own throat, the top PPP leadership riddled with graft allegations and Imran Khan enjoying the image of Mr Clean, that possibility was highly probable. Hence, during the five-year tenure of the PML-N, the real opposition to the ruling party came from the PTI. It was the PTI that demanded Nawaz Sharif to step down as early as 2014 over alleged rigging in the 2013 elections. During the prolonged dharnas, which at one stage had appeared only whisker away from dislodging the government, the PPP put its full weight behind the PML-N, and earned the sobriquet ‘a friendly opposition,’ on the ground that it was supporting democracy and not the ruling party.

After the PTI’s agitations had failed to hit the bull’s eye, the Panama Leaks provided another opportunity to the PTI to have a go at the government. It was Imran Khan who took the corruption scam to the apex court, which culminated in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and set off the reversal of fortunes for the powerful political dynasty. All along, the PPP sat on the fence on the issue. However, once it was clear that the three-time prime minister was in hot waters, the party switched gears and began gunning for the ruling family. When Sharif was finally handed down disqualification by the Supreme Court, the PPP not only heaped praises on the verdict but also contemptuously dismissed the conspiracy theory expounded by the ousted prime minister as wit and gossip.

The PPP grasped at straws to make itself palatable in the emerging arrangement. The party was instrumental in the dramatic in-house change in Balochistan. It rubbed shoulders with the PTI in the Senate elections to block the PML-N nominee for chairperson. But the cards had already been stacked in favour of the PTI, which won the 2018 elections a few months later. The PPP finished a distant third behind the PML-N. However, all wasn’t lost for the PPP. It retained its absolute majority in the Sindh Assembly and beefed up its tally in the National Assembly. On rather flimsy grounds, the party backed out of its commitment to support the PML-N in the prime minister’s election and later fielded its own candidate in the presidential poll.

All those developments were taking place in the backdrop of a cat-and-mouse game, in which the PPP was fated to play the unenviable role. If corruption could prove the Achilles’ heel for the Sharifs, it may well put the Zardaris up the creek. It was only a matter of time when the modus operandi that unseated the PML-N government would pull the rug from under the top PPP leadership as well.

Being in the same boat as the PML-N, the PPP decided to join hands with the former to ward off the PTI’s alleged attempts to turn the current oligopolistic arrangement into a monopoly. The last time that happened was during the Musharraf era when the exiled leadership of the two parties signed the CoD.

Whether the PPP-PML-N alliance will soon creak under the strain of the prisoners’ dilemma or whether it will have a longer life is anybody’s guess. But the new oligopolistic political structure should hold out a lot of assurance that they will continue to take turns at being allies and adversaries. What’s highly improbable in a duopoly becomes a norm in an oligopoly.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi