What of the opposition?

The parliamentary opposition’s role in the current environment is crucial but it appears hesitant to go beyond issuing of statements

With the country faced with an alarming number of challenges including rising inflation, shortage of commodities like wheat and sugar, a governance crisis, lack of service delivery and others, there are questions being raised regarding the performance of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) which had made big promises before assuming power. While the role of the parliamentary opposition, one that has continuously expressed a resolve to topple the government which they allege has come to power through rigged elections, becomes all the more crucial, the fact of the matter remains that the political parties involved appear hesitant to go beyond issuing of statements.

In a recent statement, Bilawal Bhutto, the co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party said he wanted to topple the government but not through undemocratic means. To achieve this end, he said, he would take people on board and create a popular movement. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is following an almost identical approach and has issued statements regarding the need for launching an anti-government movement. But who will tie the proverbial bell around the cat’s neck is still unclear.

The Awami National Party (ANP) has a limited role in the current scenario. Its politics is confined mostly to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where numbers are highly in favour of the PTI.

The most aggressive in terms of campaigning against the government is the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) whose chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, led the Azadi March in October 2019 and staged a sit-in Islamabad for two weeks. He is again gearing to launch an offensive against the government and expects major opposition parties to come out in support. He has come down hard on both the PPP and the PML-N for extending limited support to his campaign against the government. Qamar Zaman Kaira, a senior PPP leader, responded to the criticism by saying his party should not be held responsible for Fazl’s failure.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan does not miss a chance to convey to the opposition parties that the army is on his side and all efforts aimed at dislodging his government will fail. What he means is that the army’s support is a strong shield available to his government at the moment. His latest attack has been against JUI-F chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who he said might have to face charges under Article 6 of the Constitution for conspiring to topple the government. The PM referred to the statement of the JUI-F chief in which he had claimed that he was assured of this by ‘powerful quarters’.

Critics of the government allege that the PTI government has used institutions like the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Federal Investigation Authority and the Anti Narcotic Force (ANF) to silence dissent. Opposition leaders have been arrested one after the other for being critical of the government.

Prime Minister Imran Khan does not miss a chance to convey to the opposition parties that the army is on his side and all efforts aimed at dislodging his government will fail. What he means is that the army’s support is a strong shield available to his government at the moment.

Majid Nizami, a political analyst and commentator, believes that the opposition parties, especially the PPP and the PML-N, are not in a mood to start agitation. One reason for this could be the harsh weather ahead. “Political movements are not launched in extreme weather. The month of Ramazan is also not far away,” he says. Secondly, he says, the NAB cases against the opposition leaders are taken up more fiercely whenever the opposition tries to flex its muscles.

About the Maulana, Nizami says it is quite likely that he is taking the course of agitation to press for the fulfilment of promises made by ‘powerful circles’ that convinced him to call off the Azadi March. The main promise Maulana claimed was of either an in-house change or new elections. The current situation, Nizami says, is totally different from what the situation was when both the PTI and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) were in a confrontational mode against the PML-N government.

“However, at the moment, the opposition is not in a position to exert pressure and is trying to stay relevant by issuing statements. The task at hand is first to put their house in order before opting for a collision course with the government after claiming support of powerful circles.”

An interesting development being discussed is that certain quarters are hinting at PML-N leader Shehbaz Sharif being considered for the position of PM. But others question the grounds for such a space being created for him. In the Punjab, the opposition is in a position to bring about change provided it gets support from Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q). Those privy to the developments claim that the PML-N is willing to hand the offices of Punjab chief minister and a senior ministry to the PML-Q as well as 70 percent of the portfolios in the provincial cabinet. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the government amid intense criticism of CM Usman Buzdar even by PTI leaders like Fawad Chaudhry for failing to deliver in the province.

The PML-N leaders have expressed less interest in forming a government in the Punjab and more in teaching a lesson to PM Imran Khan.

Dr Mohammad Waseem, professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), says that political parties are taking different approaches according to their stature in the political ecosystem. The two mainstream parties, who have enjoyed power in the past and are hopeful of returning, are engaging in pragmatic politics and have supported the army chief’s extension, he adds. On the other hand, he points out that smaller parties like the JUI-F are doing idealist politics and hoping they can topple the government by simply taking to the streets. However, the general perception that the PTI is losing support of the establishment is definitely going to benefit the opposition, says Waseem.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

Opposition’s appears hesitant to go beyond issuing of statements