Showdown in Lahore

December 13, 2020

The PDM is poised to finish the first phase of their movement with the Lahore rally. The PTI government’s anxiety is palpable. Quite a lot is at stake…

Maryam is back in Lahore and at the centre stage.

Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of 11 opposition parties and the PTI-led government appear to be playing political snooker. Pressers, statements, tweets by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his band clearly show nervousness whereas the opposition’s tough posture speaks of the PDM’s confidence. They are battling everywhere: in the streets, on media, and on social media in particular with some extremely nasty trends. It seems that the PDM is cornering the PTI.

The PDM has emerged as a lethal composition of left, right and centrist parties, having deep roots and currency in nearly every nook and cranny of Pakistan. The most prominent component, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), has ruled the country thrice, and Punjab five times; Pakistan Peoples Party, which has ruled of the federation for five times and currently in power in Sindh for the third consecutive term; Awami National Party which has ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in coalition with the PPP and the PML-N; Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl), the biggest religious party in the parliament for several decades; Balochistan National Party (BNP), one of the biggest political entities in Balochistan that has ruled the province with the PML-N. The coalition also includes several other groups like Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, Balochistan National Party (Mengal), once the PTI’s coalition partner, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan and Jamiat Ahle Hadith, which enjoy massive support of diverse ethnic and religious populations.

Unlike the PDM, the PTI appears to stand on the crutches of the PML-Q, a party of electables, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which has strongholds in Karachi, Hyderabad and some parts of interior Sindh. The biggest concern for the PTI is its apparently declining popularity despite the fact that it won yet again what is considered as another controversial election in Gilgit-Baltistan. If either the MQM or the PML-Q withdraws support from the PTI, it can lose the government, though the chances of this scenario are slim because the PML-Q and the MQM mostly follow the instructions from the establishment.

The PDM wants to end Imran Khan’s rule. It has been calling his party a bandwagon of incapable and corrupt people. The PTI counters that the PDM is an alliance meant to protect corrupt people who want concessions in corruption cases against them in the name of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a term introduced during Musharraf’s regime. It appears ridiculous when the PTI repeatedly reiterates that it will not give an NRO to the opposition leader because none of the elected governments ever gave concessions to their opponents until they were forced to do so under the establishment’s pressure.

Recently, Imran Khan held a meeting with newspaper editors and said, “I am willing to talk to opposition on all issues except corruption cases and any NRO.”

This indicates that PM Khan is under pressure now, considering that he had never showed willingness in the recent past for holding talks with the opposition despite PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto’s offer for talks once Covid-19 emerged as a major challenge and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif’s invitation for a charter of economy.

PM Khan and his advisors had earlier labelled PDM leaders as “traitors”, especially targeting former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and other PML-N stalwarts calling them Indian agents and friends of Indian Prime Minister Modi. In the recent meeting with editors, PM Khan alleged that the PDM was part of an international conspiracy.

“Some international powers are conspiring to weaken Muslim countries. The PDM is part of that conspiracy,” said Khan.

However, the PDM leaders have been concentrating on their movement despite several hitches created by the government to break the momentum. It has organised extremely successful shows in Gujranwala, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and Multan. The final rally is planned in Lahore on December 13. It may be bigger than the previous power shows.

The Punjab government has launched a crackdown against activists of PDM parties, especially those belonging to PML-N. This is in spite of the fact that the PTI chairperson has given the impression that such a rally doesn’t matter to him.

The PDM is poised to finish the first phase of their movement with the Lahore rally. It is looking to announce a long march towards Islamabad in the last week of January 2021 where the PDM leadership will stage a sit-in. The last phase could involve resigning from the assemblies. For this the PDM has asked its parliamentarians to submit their resignations to their party heads by December 31. Most PDM leaders believe that they will manage to depose Imran Khan with the long march. If this does not work, they will use the resignations as a last resort.

PM Khan says, “We will hold by-elections in all constituencies.”

If this happens, the PDM leadership will most likely not contest the elections. Instead they will keep protesting on the streets while the parliament would be reminiscent of the 1985 National Assembly in terms its credibility. It might not survive long.

On the other hand, the PTI-led Punjab government has launched a crackdown against activists of PDM parties, especially those belonging to the PML-N. This is in spite of the fact that the PTI’s chairperson, Khan, has given the impression that such a rally doesn’t matter to him. Interestingly, Lahore police, on Thursday, arrested Asif Nazar Butt aka DJ Butt, who had served Imran Khan for years as his party’s official DJ, for “illegal possession of arms”. He was later released on bail.

Allegedly, the police arrested him in wake of the December 13 PDM rally. “They abused and tortured me. I am still one of Imran Khan’s tigers,” said Butt while talking to media outside the court.

PML-N Punjab’s information secretary Azma Bukhari says, “It is ridiculous because Butt is not our DJ for the December 13 rally.”

On the other hand, the war of words and trends on twitter between the PTI and PML-N supporters seems to have crossed every limit. So far, the two sides have been involved in a verbal battle but there is the fear that it may turn into physical clashes in future. Nawaz Sharif, in his address to a social media convention, had warned his supporters to keep their temperament cool as he had received information about plans for nasty personal attacks against PML-N leaders. His information appeared to have been accurate but his supporters seem to have completely ignored his directions and have been responding to the trends and attacks launched by PTI supporters in a similar manner.

As a party, the PTI comprises former leaders from the PML-N, and the PPP, and those who always seek support from the establishment. Going by historical trends, such parties are unlikely to have a permanent presence. Examples of parties like Millat Party of Farooq Leghari and PML-Q come to mind. The party has quite a lot to lose especially since it has not made its mark in terms of good governance. The PDM appears to have put everything on stake and has nothing to lose except perhaps a government in Sindh.

The author is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Showdown in Lahore