The strident optimist

October 18, 2020

Fazl is willing to give it his all. However, that may not be enough without similar support from his allies

Compulsions of the political cut and thrust have once again brought major opposition parties together and created an opportunity for Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the chief of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), to lead a campaign against his nemesis, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). He has been elected to head the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) – an alliance of opposition parties vowing to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan and banish his allegedly unconstitutional ‘sponsors’.

With only a dozen seats in the National Assembly, the JUI-F is not a major player in terms of parliamentary strength. However, it has a loyal vote bank and commands critical street power. Its support base is located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where it is engaged in a bitter rivalry with the incumbent PTI, in Balochistan where it has been part of many past governments and parts of Sindh where its role has alternated between that of a contender and a spoiler. Its ability to mobilise large numbers of activists for protest demonstrations may be a key asset if the PDM persists in its strategy of confronting the government on the streets.

The JUI-F chief had made headlines in 2019 when he brought tens of thousands of his dedicated followers to Islamabad ostensibly in a bid to topple the regime. However, he did not receive the support he had expected from the two main opposition parties – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – who were content with a mere token participation in this two-week sit-in in Islamabad.

Frustrated and disappointed, Fazl was forced to tell his supporters to disperse, promising to ‘soon’ unveil a Plan B. He had also expelled the PPP and the PML-N from his anti-government alliance and stopped consulting them. He had ruled out political cooperation and dialogue with these parties.

The PPP and the PML-N appeared then, each for its own reasons, to try not to rock the boat. Developments on the accountability front appear, however, to have forced their hand. Seeing no accommodation and little space after cooperating with the government for the passage of critical legislation leaders of both parties appear to have resolved to give the government a tough time. This has made Fazl a natural ally and united the erstwhile rivals under the PDM umbrella.

The Multi-Party Conference, hosted by the PPP on September 20, will likely be remembered in the future for the defiant speeches made by their leaders former president Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Fazl was quick to see his chance and seized the moment to press the two parties to lock themselves into a hard position from which they cannot back out without sustaining significant political damage.

“The Maulana and the JUI-F have an important role in this movement. He has been making the effort all along to unite the various opposition groups. He was not happy with the main political parties but the political interests of these two parties have brought them around to joining hands with him. He has an ongoing vendetta with this regime and he commands street power,” says journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. He says that is why Fazl has been given the leadership role and made the first president of the PDM.

Yusufzai feels, however, that the leadership mantle and his street power might not be sufficient for the Maulana to force the PTI out. “There are doubts whether this can remain a united movement. For the moment, it seems that the major political actors have vested interests and do not want the PTI to secure a majority in the Senate. That is why they want to topple the government before March, the way the Maulana wants.” He views Fazl himself has no stake in the current set up. That is why he is more desperate than the PPP and the PML-N.

Political agitation by a religious or religio-political party or alliance has never succeeded in the past in ousting a government without the support of the mainstream political parties.

For now, the Maulana looks like he is willing to throw his weight around. When there were reports suggesting that he may be called by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to explain his assets, allegedly beyond his known means, he warned the government and its supporters of serious trouble. He was reported as having said at a public meeting that his supporters could start a sit-in in front of the Peshawar corps commander’s house and make it very inconvenient.

Several political analysts say his abrasive tone might prove counterproductive and cause cracks in the PDM over the coming weeks. They assert that wholehearted support from major political parties is essential for his push to succeed. For now, it does not appear to be forthcoming.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at

The strident optimist