The reluctant rebels

October 18, 2020

Its unique position among the opposition parties leaves friends and foes guessing the PPP’s future course

Every year since 2007 the Pakistan Peoples’ Party has been organising a huge rally on October 18, to mark the anniversary of the Karsaz bombing in Karachi. On that day, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had arrived in Pakistan after eight years of self-exile in Dubai and London and was leading a rally of jubilant supporters when two powerful bombs went off killing at least 130 people. Benazir, however, was unhurt in that episode and remained undeterred in the face of threats of extremist violence.

This year, too, the PPP is set to stage a rally at Bagh-i-Jinnah, adjacent to Mazar-i-Quaid in Karachi. This time the party is not only marking the 13h anniversary of Karsaz blasts but also hosting a show of street power by the eleven opposition parties that have recently formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to challenge the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and its backers.

On October 5, the PDM had announced a revised schedule for anti-government rallies across the country after reservations surfaced in major political parties on the dates announced earlier. The PPP in particular had objected to an October 18 rally in Quetta, pointing out that it marked the day as Karsaz bombing anniversary.

According to the new schedule, the anti-government campaign got off in Gujranwala on October 16 (Friday) with a rally hosted by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The PPP is set to host the second event on 18th (today).

Central leaders of the constituent parties, including Bilawal Bhutto, Maryam Nawaz, and PDM chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, will address the public meeting in Karachi.

The PPP leaders are optimistic that the Karachi rally will be “historic”. They have said it will go down in the country’s political history as “a referendum against the incompetent incumbents.”

“October has historic significance for the restoration of democracy in the country. It was in this month that Benazir returned to Pakistan in 2007 and was welcomed by a sea of people,” says Barrister Murtaza Wahab, a PPP leader and adviser to Sindh government. “On October 18, 2007, scores of PPP activists sacrificed their lives for the sake of democracy. That is why the meeting is being held on October 18.”

Political analyst, Riaz Sohail, says that the PPP leadership manages to gather a significant and charged crowd on October 18 every year on account of the sentiments attached to Benazir, who came under attack on that day in 2007.

“It has been hard otherwise for the PPP to organise such a successful rally in the city. The recent Karachi Solidarity Rally was an example of that,” Sohail tells TNS. The October 4 rally was meant mainly to counter back-to-back power shows by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan and Jamaat-i-Islami in late September.

The PPP has accepted the challenge of making the PDM rally successful. It is not relying solely on its supporters in Karachi. PPP central and provincial leaders have asked parliamentarians and local leaders to bring supporters carrying party flags to make the PPP visible in the multi-party event.

Some analysts have said that the PPP has not been particularly aggressive in the PDM. No wonder some leaders of the other component parties have voiced their lack of trust in its leaders.

Federal Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed has claimed that the PPP will part ways with the PDM by the end of December.

Some PPP leaders too concede differences. “The party has its reservations, particularly about Maulana Fazlur Rehman leading the alliance on account of ideological differences,” a senior PPP leader told TNS, requesting anonymity. “Also, despite its clear anti-establishment stance, the PPP has never supported any movement to derail the democratic process.”

After organising large public meetings and rallies across the country from mid-October, the PDM plans to lead a march on Islamabad ahead of the critical Senate elections that could give the PTI control of both houses of parliament.

“The PML-N plans to resign from the parliament and provincial assemblies before the Senate polls but the PPP is reluctant to lose its Sindh government – stronger as a result of the 18th Amendment,” says the PPP leader.

In contrast, PML-N’s Maryam has shown far more commitment towards mobilising the people against the government and making the PDM campaign a success. Some analysts say this is also because the Punjab, not Sindh, is the main battleground against the PTI where the PML-N seems to have the strength to challenge the PTI government on account of its lackluster performance.

The PDM rally in Karachi itself is a challenge for the PPP which has now ruled Sindh without a break since 2008.

October 18 will also mark Maryam’s first public appearance in Karachi - the country’s biggest city where her party has had a significant support base among various ethnic communities.

The JUI-F too is a PDM component. The party has been emerging as a challenge to the PPP in rural Sindh and has been critical of the Sindh government accusing it of bad governance. The PPP has been unhappy with the JUI-F for lending crucial support to a PTI-backed candidate in Larkana, in a by-election last year.

Also, the Sindh government is under severe pressure in the province’s urban centers, particularly Karachi, from the PTI, the MQM-P, the JI, and Pak Sarzameen Party over various issues, including empowerment of municipalities. It is accused of making them toothless by taking away their powers and failing to resolve multifarious civic and administrative issues.

The Sindh government has also been a vocal advocate of social distancing to control Covid-19 and critical of several pandemic-related decisions of the federal government which has supported an early return to pre-pandemic normal.

“On one hand, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah is saying that 222 new cases of Covid-19 have emerged and people have been dying in Sindh on account of inadequate restraint. On the other hand, he is using government machinery to bring people to the PDM rally,” says PTI Karachi president and MPA Khurram Sher Zaman. “There is a clear contradiction in the words and deeds of the PPP-led Sindh government.”

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at  Twitter: @zalmayzia

The reluctant rebels: What is PPP's future course?