Where be the opposition?

A determined opposition could have given the rulers a tough time. They chose not to

The opposition’s performance is more or less like K-Electric, which, despite having been provided with sufficient fuel, does not generate enough electricity. The parliamentary opposition’s predicament is similar. There performance has been characterised by a lot of talk and little action.

The two major opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) are united in their dislike of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf. Yet they have been unable to take the bull by the horns and devise a plan to give the government a tough time, let alone work to remove the ruling party from power.

So what’s wrong with the opposition parties? Why can’t they put enough pressure on Prime Minister Imran Khan to mend his ways? Why can’t they get any respite from his constant onslaught over their alleged corruption? Above all, is the opposition opposing the government for the sake of it, for its own benefit or for the citizens of the country?

The biggest loss has been the absence of heavyweights among opposition voices. There has been a conspicuous absence of the top leaders of the two main opposition parties for a long time. Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari are all facing health issues. This has taken the steam out of the opposition’s onslaught. These leaders have been so dominant in the affairs of their parties that their absence feels abnormal.

Major leaders in both parties have gone through questioning, detention, trial, and conviction on charges of corruption, nepotism, and misuse of state resources. But both parties describe the accountability process as political victimisation. Can the hush be on account of lack of transparency in their financial affairs?

Their illness is understandable but their incessant silence is not. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, for example, is certainly not being discreet on account of health. Some analysts see constant pressure from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) as one major reason. The moment we see an opposition leader speak out against the Imran regime and build a case, a NAB notice materialises. Many people are increasingly of the opinion as a result that their silence is an outcome of the NAB pressure.

Last year, we saw a premature dash to Islamabad by Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Not only did the public largely ignore his appeal, his own allies too did not fully side with him. That the opposition political parties are divided is obvious, the reason for this division is not. We do see joint statements by the PPP and the PML-N wishing an end to PTI’s government, but those are not followed up with a plan of action. We see senior PML-N leaders differ on whether PM Imran Khan would be shown the door early or left to self-destruct. The only strategy they admit to is “wait and see”. “Waiting for the Imran government to fall under the weight of its own follies can be a strategy,” says Ahsan Iqbal Chaudhary, a PML-N member of the National Assembly. Bilawal Bhutto, too, has on many occasions said that the PPP would like to see the PTI complete its term.

More Talk, Less Action

There is no dearth of issues for the opposition to take the PTI government to task for. These keep coming up every other day. Take, for example, the recent fuel shortages. A determined opposition could have given the rulers a tough time, but the major parties chose not to.

The biggest opposition to the PTI since it ascended to power in August 2018 has been the party itself. The follies it has committed in its dealings with the country’s financial crisis and the coronavirus are enough for people to see just how well it is performing.

The strategy appears to be deliberate rather than reactive. We saw a lot of fire coming out of the mouths of opposition leaders when they spoke on the federal budget, but hardly a suggestion or alternative was offered. They were good at pointing out weaknesses and lapses in the budget, but did not offer a way out. In the end, the budget got passed without much ado. The opposition thus failed to offer a new political and economic programme to replace the PTI government’s policies. We were again made to realise what ails our opposition parties.

But coronavirus has brought to surface another serious political fissure – relations between the parties that run the federal government and the provincial government in Sindh. The opposition’s much cherished 18th Amendment, giving provinces the right to manage their own health departments, has come under fire from the PTI. There are no signs of a change being contemplated by the federal government yet, but its contempt for the law is established.

The PPP-ruled Sindh has come up with a serious challenge for the prime minister and his narrative on efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The differences are not merely verbal. They are now affecting efforts to weed out the pandemic. The PTI plans to challenge the Sindh government’s Emergency Relief Ordinance in a court. For its part, the Sindh government has been complaining of delayed shipments of Covid-19 testing kits. With Pakistan still waiting for the peak in the number of new Covid-19 cases, there is still time for the two to come to terms before the disagreements produce serious repercussions for the people.

The two major PTI rivals have not tried so far to get the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) on board. Sardar Akhtar Mengal has only met Maulana Fazlur Rehman. If they are keen on weakening the PTI coalition, this is a good time to start their homework. But since their own performance in Balochistan during their stints in power left a lot to be desired, it’s difficult to understand why Akhtar Mengal would like to side with them. Hence, the chances of Imran Khan winning over BNP-M remain bright.

A positive, though brief, development in Pakistan’s political landscape came after a long time when the prime minister appeared to soften his stance towards the opposition. It was when he attended a conference on Covid-19 convened by the speaker of the National Assembly with Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto in attendance. Sadly, he left without hearing them which must have been a huge disappointment for the host. Yet, this was the first sign of a thaw. The next signal came when he spoke in parliament on the budget and made the famous ‘martyr’ statement. Towards the end, he managed to say that his fight with the opposition leaders was not personal. It’s still hard to say if it’s genuine change or if it’s a new trend or a one-off gesture.

Having fought each other for a long time, two major political forces in Pakistan have realised that they were not only weakening themselves but also democracy.

The PPP is planning an all parties’ conference to devise a better-coordinated strategy in the coming days. Maybe that will change the course. But a joint opposition engaging in a hard fight against the government is still on nobody’s radar.

The biggest opposition to the PTI since it ascended to power in August 2018 has been from within the party itself. The follies it has committed in its dealings with the IMF, the country’s financial crisis and now the coronavirus are enough for people to see just how it is performing. Mounting public pressure to deliver amidst hard economic realities is making its rank and file jittery. That is why we hear about in-fighting and rivalries. If this trend is not checked, the opposition might not need to do much. Imran Khan’s confidence that the country has no other leadership option is utterly misplaced.

The writer is a veteran journalist and the managing editor of Independent Urdu

Where be the opposition?