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February 22, 2021

Disagreement on key issues still exist: Senate elections induce unity in PDM

National

February 22, 2021

ISLAMABAD: While the Senate election has compelled the parties comprising the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to display a semblance of cohesion and unity, the 10-party opposition alliance is otherwise confronted by a number of challenges because of disagreements among its major partners on key issues.

The fielding of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani for a Senate seat from Islamabad as the joint PDM candidate in particular has forced the grouping to close ranks to face Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Sheikh, the nominee of the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), as a united force.

While the constituent parties of the PDM speak with one voice on standing behind Gillani, they have yet to work out a consensus on putting up combined Senate candidates in the other components of the electoral college, particularly the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies. The opposition alliance might be able to clinch a couple of additional seats from these legislatures if they team up. Although there have been discussions to reach an accord, a formal seat-sharing formula is yet to be made public.

Given the strong action Prime Minister Imran Khan had taken against a set of defectors of the KP assembly in the 2018 Senate elections, there seem to be fewer chances that the March electoral exercise will see a repeat of what happened in the past. Even otherwise, the parliamentary parties, specifically the PTI, are more vigilant this time. Since the PTI has a firm grip over the KP assembly, it did not hesitate in quickly sacking Irrigation Minister Liaquat Khattak, brother of Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, after it lost the Nowshera by-election. Liaquat Khattak’s differences with his brother were considered instrumental in the defeat of its nominee. This action will not negatively impact the PTI’s huge numerical strength in the KP assembly even if Liaquat Khattak does not vote for the party’s nominees.

Disagreements between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), supported by the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) remain on a number of issues including resignation from the assemblies, the duration of the planned long march and its conversion into a prolonged sit-in in the federal capital and the tabling a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan in the National Assembly. However, these contentious issues have currently been put on the backburner.

The PML-N and JUI-F have consistently taken a hard-line and called for aggressively displaying their street power but the PPP insists on agitating against the government while remaining within the system. To keep the alliance intact, the PDM agreed half-heartedly to delay the launch of the long march and moves to quit the assemblies because of the PPP’s objections.

For now, this difference of opinion has been set aside or has been overshadowed by the Senate elections and the PDM parties are focused on this electoral exercise. When these polls are over on March 3, the disagreement are likely to resurface. By then, the date of the start of the proposed long march on March 26 will also draw closer. For the time being, the PDM is not talking about its future protests given the dust kicked up by the tussle over the results of the by-polls. It is yet unclear from which cities the long march will begin and when it will converge on Islamabad.

Over half a dozen hotly contested by-elections in all the four provinces have also diverted the attention of the PDM components from their protest campaign. The comprehensive involvement of the alliance in the exercise was a result of Asif Ali Zardari’s insistence not to leave the field open to its arch-rival.

The PPP supremo also came up with the idea of sponsoring Gillani for the general seat from Islamabad despite the fact that the PDM parties do not have a majority in the National Assembly. Gilani’s victory in the circumstances would be nothing short of a miracle. Even if the former PM loses but gets more votes than those of the PDM parties’ share, it would be regarded as a huge achievement.

After Gillani jumped into the arena, the ruling alliance promptly kick-started its efforts to put its own house in order. It is currently working hard to strengthen unity with its allies. Its first and foremost effort is to ensure all its members in the electoral college cast their votes and no one tries to slip away.

An immediate upshot of Gillani’s candidature is that there is now increased interaction between former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman with the primary objective of garnering support for Gillani.

In 2018, the PPP and PML-N had lobbied quietly, away from the public glaze, and had been successful in managing three additional seats from the KP assembly. In 2021, they have openly put up Gilani for the Islamabad seat. It is anybody’s guess how far they will succeed in their current campaign.