Politics, in opposition

November 22, 2020

In a fast-evolving political context, and with the pandemic still raging on, PDM’s resolve to not rest until the government steps down will be tested

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is entering its second phase of protests and public gatherings. Its leaders have pledged once again to remove Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government through a mass movement. They are tapping into growing public anxiety about economic crises, food inflation, and unemployment to pull massive crowds. More recently, unexpected results in the Gilgit-Baltistan election have fuelled ongoing political turbulence.

The alliance of 11 opposition parties has vowed to stick to its plan of holding a public gathering in Peshawar followed by similar public meetings in other cities. Besides, the PDM leadership has announced that it will defy the government’s ban on public gatherings and declared that opposition parties will not rest until the government steps down.

Opposition alliances and massive public protests have a long history in Pakistani politics. These alliances have been formed against military dictators like Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf as well as elected governments of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif. Some political analysts posit that there is a significant difference between the current PDM alliance and the past movements in that the PDM is confronting a government claiming the establishment support.

So far, the PDM has held three massive rallies in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta. These have generated a political momentum against the government. It is expected that the Peshawar show will boost this momentum, says Hanif Rehman, the Khyber TV news controller. This, he says, is because the host parties, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), have tremendous political and street power in the province.

That Maryam Nawaz, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz vice president, got a huge public response in Swat a few days back shows that the party still has popular support in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he adds.

“Aftab Khan Sherpao’s Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) has a stronghold in the districts of Charsadda, Buner and Dir. Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also enjoys popular support in the province. This means that the PDM can be optimistic and expect a colossal gathering despite security threats”, he says.

However, the political narrative of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and head of PML-N, and his hard-hitting speeches against the leadership of armed forces are creating new challenges for some parties in the PDM. Some analysts are of the view that the opposition parties’ alliance created to send the current government home is crumbling on account of Sharif’s ‘controversial’ narrative.

The narrative also seems to have created a rift within the PML-N, posits analyst Salman Abid. He cites the parting of ways by Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch (retired), a former federal minister, and of Sana Ullah Zahri, the former chief minister of Balochistan, as significant developments in this regard.

“Many senior members of the party are unwilling to support the ‘anti-army narrative’ of Nawaz Sharif. They are anxiously waiting for Shahbaz Sharif to take a decision”, he adds.

Most of the parliamentarians are not inclined to own Nawaz Sharif’s anti-army narrative, says Abid. “What’s making it difficult for these parliamentarians is Shahbaz Sharif’s reluctance to make a decisive political choice”, he says.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the minister for railways, proclaims that a ‘Sheen League’ would emerge from the ‘Noon League’. True to character, he has gone far enough to say, several times in the last few days, that the PML-N would cease to have a role in national politics. Coming from a political adversary who is part of the government coalition, these words need to be taken with a dash of salt.

“The PPP was holding back. Perhaps it did not want a direct tussle with the establishment in the Gilgit-Baltistan election,” says Hafeez Ullah Niazi.

Some analysts argue that Nawaz Sharif is indispensable for the party. Maryam Nawaz’s show of power in Swat and Gilgit-Baltistan support this argument.

It has been shown on several occasions that the party can’t run without Nawaz Sharif. He is crucial to every step the PML-N takes, analyst Hafeez Ullah Niazi tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

“Although, Shahbaz Sharif has proved an able administrator in the Punjab, he has been unable to establish himself as a strong leader comparable to Nawaz Sharif. Without the political support of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, is nothing in the eyes of PML-N workers”, he says.

“The anti-government political momentum has been generated by Nawaz Sharif. It is gathering strength by the day. There can be no doubt that the Vote ko izzat doe narrative has grabbed public attention”, says Niazi.

He says the people are very angry about the economic crises in the country, particularly the food prices.

“People appear willing to buy Nawaz Sharif’s narrative that an incompetent government cannot deal with the serious situation and that the establishment must withdraw its support for the PTI government or be prepared to face the criticism”, he says.

Hafeez Ullah Niazi does not see a rift in the PDM. “The PPP was holding back perhaps not wanting a direct tussle with the establishment in the Gilgit-Baltistan election. Bilawal was quite hopeful about winning, considering the voters’ response during his three-week campaign. The unexpected results [in GB elections] have helped the PDM congregate its political strength. Their tone in the Peshawar gathering is likely to be harsher,” he says.

The PDM appears confident. It has kept the pressure on the government. It is looking forward to the Peshawar jalsa followed by rallies in Multan on November 30 and in Lahore on December 13. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has ruled out negotiations with the government or the establishment until the removal of the PTI-led government.

Past experience indicates that backdoor negotiations are going on with the government and the establishment, says Niazi.

“Under these circumstances, the establishment can perhaps ignore the government. However, the government cannot afford to ignore the establishment at this stage”, he adds.

Analyst Suhail Warraich says that closing the door on negotiations can never benefit democratic forces.

“The political movement has successfully isolated Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, the PDM lacks strength required to roll back the current setup”, he asserts.

The establishment, according to Warraich, appears to be willing to negotiate with the opposition parties.

“It will be interesting to see whether the establishment keep the government onboard or ignores it”, he says.

PM Imran Khan has vowed several times that he will not negotiate with opposition parties. Certainly, this narrative will become irrelevant if the economic crises deepens further and opposition parties successfully can manipulate public anxiety in their favour, says Warraich.

Meanwhile, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is in full swing. The federal government has put strict restrictions on public gathering of more than three hundred people at any public place.

However, analysts say that this might not be enough for the KP government to stop the PDM from holding the public gathering on November 22. They say the use of force to stop the gathering can be devastating politically.

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

Politics, in opposition: PDM’s resolve to not rest until govt steps down is going to be tested