A storm on the horizon?

October 4, 2020

Will the opposition be able to maintain its unity and momentum against the PTI government and the establishment?

Pushed to the wall by the government, opposition parties, especially the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have finally decided to up the ante in their tussle with the establishment.

Though the outcome of this political battle is yet to be decided, both sides have chosen their strategies.

Talking to The News on Sunday, top PML-N leaders outlined their future course of action. “Nawaz Sharif will not return to Pakistan until he is physically fit and feels safe returning,” they said.

Addressing a party meeting on September 30, Nawaz Sharif too had hinted at not returning to Pakistan any time soon: “I am not prepared to live under the tyranny of certain people. We have to rid our country of their oppression.”

Meanwhile, the government has written to the British authorities, seeking Nawaz Sharif’s extradition. However, the UK government has reportedly declined the request on the grounds that most of the cases against the former PM appear to be politically motivated.

“The second decision is to launch Maryam Nawaz as the party’s top leader. Nawaz Sharif did not even take Shehbaz into confidence about the content of his speech at the Multi-Party Conference. He has ruled against his younger brother’s idea of avoiding confrontation with the establishment,” a party insider said.

“The PML-N will launch a mass mobilisation campaign, alongside the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) rallies. The first PML-N rally will be held at Gujranwala on October 16. The PDM will hold its first public rally in Quetta. If Maryam is arrested, Nawaz loyalists will continue their protest campaign,” said another PML-N stalwart.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) too expects that its principal leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto might be arrested. “If this happens, we may bring Aseefa Bhutto to the field. She will be our trump card,” a PPP leader said.

On the other hand, the PTI has decided to launch a massive crackdown against the opposition parties. “The government has decided to handle the opposition parties with an iron hand. In this connection, Imran Khan has given a free hand to Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. The recent meeting between Buzdar and Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi was meant to seek the latter’s support for the campaign,” a PTI source said.

Most of the top leaders of the PML-N, the PPP and Jamiat Ulama-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) face accountability cases.

Following the September 20 MPC, there have been a lot of developments. Shehbaz Sharif has been arrested in a money laundering case and arrest warrants have been issued for his wife and daughter by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Asif Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur have been indicted in corruption cases. The NAB also issued a notice to Maulana Fazlur Rehman. It was, however, withdrawn after he threatened to storm the NAB offices.

A highly informed source says that Prime Minister Imran Khan is in no mood to accommodate the opposition. “The powers that be had advised the PM to go slow, but he is not prepared to take that advice. He has also been advised recently to replace Buzdar who has been unable to deliver good governance. However, the PM has said he would not do so.” “The establishment is thinking differently and is not satisfied. They fear that it will become harder for them to support the government in the near future on account of its rigidity. The government’s failures on the administrative front are another factor behind their disappointment.”

On October 1, posters in support of the army chief and the intelligence chief appeared in Islamabad. Those have apparently been put up by a civilian. However, opposition parties claim that the government is behind this move.

As matters head towards a dramatic confrontation, the political calm of only a month ago appears unbelievable in hindsight. Then, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were silent and PPP’s Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto spoke in a more measured tone. Maulana Fazlur Rehman seemed to be the only vocal critic of the government trying unsuccessfully to convince other opposition parties to make common cause with him against the government.

The Multi-Party Conference has proved a political game-changer. Speeches by former president Asif Ali Zardari, former PM Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman are being seen as a declaration of war against the government.

In his address Zardari said: “We don’t want to derail the system. We want restoration of democracy in the country.” Zardari, known for his political acumen, also predicted: “I might be the first one to go to jail after the conference. I will request Maulana Fazl to visit me; I will be waiting for him.” However, it was Nawaz Sharif who stole the show through his speech via video link. “I am not targeting Imran Khan but those who have installed him by rigging the elections. The practice of stealing people’s mandate must stop.”

Such statements, coupled with the strongly-worded joint declaration issued at the end of the conference, were seen as a direct challenge to the PTI and the establishment. The resulting Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has the potential to rival the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), launched during Gen Zia’s regime and the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) during Gen Musharraf’s era. It is ironic that a democratic movement has now been launched against an elected government. It is probably because opposition parties increasingly believe that the establishment is micromanaging the current government and it is time to demand a stop to the increasing interference in political affairs.

Soon after the APC, the army spokesman reiterated that military leaders were not interfering in politics. Several government ministers then joined the chorus of criticism of the opposition.

As matters head towards a dramatic confrontation, the political clam that prevailed only a month ago appears unbelievable in hindsight. Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz had been silent and Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto spoke in a more measured tone. Maulana Fazlur Rehman was then the only one trying to convince other opposition parties to make common cause with him against the government.

In a bid to undermine the opposition’s anti-establishment narrative, Federal Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed broke the news that only recently some PML-N leaders had held meetings with the establishment. He also stated that several ministers were in contact with the opposition over proposed legislation on the status of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The disclosure dented the narrative of the opposition parties and their credibility. Analysts and supporters of the opposition parties also sought justification for the secret meetings with military leaders. The government also reacted the same way and called the MPC a group of corrupt people trying to avoid the accountability process.

It appears that the opposition’s objective is to get rid of the PTI government before the Senate elections in March. The coming days can thus be tough for the government. Their biggest challenge is to hold the local government elections in the Punjab without losing face. Some PTI leaders have advised the government to delay the local elections, sensing that the PML-N will win a lot of seats. They believe that the government should instead focus on chipping away at the PML-N and PPP strength in the provincial assemblies.

Given the circumstances, the most important question is: will the opposition be able to maintain its unity and momentum?

Already, PML-N’s Khawaja Asif has expressed his apprehensions about the PPP and stated that he does not trust Zardari. Nawaz Sharif, however, has distanced himself from the statement. “It is Asif’s own point of view and has nothing to do with the party’s mindset. I respect Zardari and trust him.”

Talking to the TNS, Senator Pervaiz Rasheed, a PML-N stalwart, said: “The nation is watching how Imran Khan is using the NAB against his political opponents. He is violating all political ethics. Some of the courts are also acting his tool.”

To a question about the future of the PDM and opposition unity, he said: “All parties in the PDM strongly believe that there should be rule of law in accordance with the constitution, supremacy of the parliament and unadulterated democracy in the country. I don’t think that anybody will back out. If any party backs out, it will be answerable to the democratic people of Pakistan.”

To a question about the possibility of arrests of PML-N leaders and the future campaign, he said: “Even if all our leaders are arrested, PML-N workers will launch the movement.”

Pakistan Peoples Party’s Punjab chief Qamar Zaman Kaira said: “We appreciate Nawaz Sharif for his speech. What he is asking for now is a decades-old demand of the PPP. We have been demanding supremacy of the parliament as enshrined in the constitution. We demand that all [national] institutions work within the limits defined by the constitution.”

“The army chief’s statement that army will not interfere in politics is music to our ears. We wish his words come true, but it will only be possible if the constitution is strictly followed by all including the army and the judiciary,” said Kaira. “We don’t want any confrontation with a national institution. Our fight is for the supremacy of the parliament.”

About the future of the PDM, he said: “In 2006, the PPP and the PML-N signed the Charter of Democracy. Despite having several differences, the two parties implemented 90 percent of the clauses of the CoD. Now, these forces would ensure implementation of the joint declaration of the APC.” The PPP and the PML-N have both committed mistakes in the past but they have learned from them and made CoD a success, he added.

Nawaz Sharif’s seriousness about the movement can be judged from the recent activities of his party and his fiery address to the meeting of PML-N central executive committee and council on two consecutive days. The present political tussle between the opposition and the government is expected to peak in the coming two months.

The writer is a senior journalist and analyst. He tweets @Bukharimubasher

Opposition's PDM: A storm on the horizon?