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January 25, 2021

Flaws in PDM strategy


January 25, 2021

PDM leaders in Lahore.

Serious flaws in the strategy of 10-party opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) led to a situation where the alliance looked a “divided house” and too weak to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan through vote of no-confidence unless the latest proposal of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has some “backup support” which perhaps does not exist. They are also not prepared for any “agitation” which even otherwise could only lead to extra-constitutional means.

Whether someone likes it or not, history is with the prime minister for two reasons. The vote of no-confidence against any PM never succeeded. It failed in 1989 even the IJI, then opposition alliance, had the support of establishment.

The recent move in 2020 against the Chairman Senate was defeated despite opposition’s majority in the Senate. Thus, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari or PPP’s changed strategy and undeclared opposition to ”dharna” in Islamabad in March, clearly indicate that party is in the defensive mood and sees the PDM march plan as nothing but an exercise in futility. The PPP perhaps wanted PDM to continue with a plan of holding public meetings and rallies but should not use its “trump card” unless they were sure of sending the government home.

The basic flaw in the PDM’s strategy was its own narrative. While former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in London for the past one year, directly attacked the establishment without knowing the situation on the ground, the PPP adopted a defensive approach and in between JUI-F Maulana Fazlur Rehman and few nationalist parties were left with no option but to rely on holding one public meeting after another.

All this confusion made PDM’s movement a non-starter and its component parties now have a task ahead to bring unanimity among the parties and go for a new action plan.

Nawaz Sharif’s high-pitched speeches not only closed all doors for any chance of breakthrough but it also brought the prime minister even closer to the establishment.

The PPP on the other hand does not want to lose either Sindh government or the Senate elections. Now, with no-confidence proposal, it's more than clear that the PPP wants “friendly opposition” with ruling PTI knowing well that neither through vote of no-confidence nor through agitation they could oust the government. The PDM now looks more of a soft opposition alliance and its future looks bleak.

So, for all practical purposes the PDM in the last three months has withdrawn from its action plan, starting from claiming to oust the Prime minister by December 31st to the strategy to resign from the parliament and provincial assemblies to cripple the government. Opposition also withdrew from its plan to march to Islamabad and has now deferred the same till March.

The PDM also looked confused when they decided not to boycott the by-elections and decided to participate in the Senate election. In a way they accepted the existing democratic system which they called “selective.”

It also looked divided on adopting strategies for countrywide agitation like observing strike or court arrest. While PML (N) has no history of politics of agitation, the PPP in the post-Asif Ali Zardari era has also changed its DNA from the past of resistance to that of reconciliation. All this leaves a burden on JUI (F) as other nationalist parties like ANP, PkMAP or BNP (Mengal) have limited capacity.

On the other hand, the government after learning from its poor handling of PDM’s Multan public meeting adopted a more matured strategy and allowed opposition’s public meetings and even demonstrations outside the Election Commission office in the Red Zone. The move defused the situation on the ground and went in favour of the government.

The PDM which has set January 30 “deadline” for PM to resign is now facing the crisis within and may face another embarrassment when the deadline passes without a future plan.

Post-Senate election scenario would be interesting to watch as the government after getting a majority in the both houses, intends to bring drastic changes in the system through legislation. It would also be interesting to see how the Opposition will go in the local government elections, which are likely to be held by May this year.

The PDM, in the last three months, has not been able to enforce any of its “action plan,” making its own cadre and rank and file confused which badly affected the participation of common people in its public meetings. Now, it appears they may have to review its “long march” plan as they have left with no option but to extend its deadline for the PM to resign.

The PDM never emerged as a strong alliance despite the presence of all mainstream opposition parties. It lacks seriousness and commitment which could be reflected from the fact that unlike alliances in the past they hardly came out from counter narrative, strong resolutions on the national and international issues as we had witnessed in the alliance like Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD).

Differences in the PDM existed from the day it was formed, starting from the issue as to who should lead the alliance. While PML-N proposed the name of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of JUI-F, the PPP and ANP suggested that the head of the PDM should be changed every month or after every three months.

If former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s premature direct attack on the powerful establishment surprised Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the latter’s defensive and soft opposition gave an impression that they are not in the agitation or resistance mood. As a result, the alliance has now left with no choice but to adopt a new strategy if they want to remain intact.

It will also be interesting to see what possible gain former President Asif Ali Zardari will get in return except the message of reconciliation to the establishment? Knowing well that the vote of no-confidence cannot succeed without getting support from parties like PML-Q and MQM (Pakistan), two strong coalition partners of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the proposal of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto clearly indicates the PPP is in no mood to go too far with PDM and has accepted the present system and the prime minister till the time government and establishment developed any differences on policy matters. At the moment, there is no sign of cracks and whatever difference of opinion they had now has bridged thanks to the position taken by disqualified premier Nawaz Sharif.

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