The public perception and media conjecture about the alliance having failed are built more on their own expectations than a reflection of the sum of the objectives of the PDM’s constituent members
It is a tad ironic that the future of the popular opposition alliance is more uncertain than that of the unpopular ruling coalition. In the chaotic, messy politics of Pakistan the national political arrangement is supposed to be the other way round. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) appears to be in disarray.
There is a logic at play here. The PDM groups together 11 parties of varying sizes and influences but is really dominated by the Big Two – Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – currently being steered on the ground by Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz, respectively. Both are showcasing mutually exclusive tactics to deploy against the Imran Khan government.
After a smooth run of about a year of operating in concert, the PPP and the PML-N seem to be not just drifting apart but are apparently tottering on the edge of an all-out war of attrition that threatens to undermine the PDM. Will it come apart?
That may not be as easy as is being speculated upon currently. The public perceptions and media conjecture about the alliance having failed are built more on their own expectations of it than a reflection of the sum of the objectives of the PDM’s constituent members.
The strongest argument for the opposition staying strategically aligned even if conflicting tactically is that its principal goal of keeping the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf government in political pain remains securely intact. It is the details of the tactics that are causing grief. This in itself is not unexpected considering that the alliance members are political competitors and electoral foes.
PDM unity was always premised on the short-term objective of termination of the Khan government rather than any long-term goal of political reform aimed at changing the system that has distorted the polity.
The radical rhetoric of the PDM constituent parties, particularly the vote ko izzat doe rallying cry is often misinterpreted as the alliance’s primary purpose being reform (Selectors ko nikalo), aided by periodic outbursts from Nawaz Sharif, rather than rejection (Khan ko nikalo), which it really is.
Had the PDM’s purpose been the former, it would have proceeded, immediately after its founding, to produce a follow-up to the seminal Charter of Democracy seeking civilian supremacy formulated by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, which in 2008 ushered in the longest period of civilian rule in Pakistan’s political history.
When the PDM was formed, there was initially some talk indeed of a committee being formed to produce a follow-up to the original Charter but that petered out in favour of an anti-climactic 13-point list of objectives announced by Maulana Fazlur Rehman. This revolved around the need to address the alleged illegitimacy of the Khan government resulting from the controversial 2018 elections.
The fallout of the PPP and PML-N spat in the aftermath of Yousaf Raza Gillani’s election to the Senate (aided by PML-N) and then election as leader of the opposition in the Senate (not aided by PML-N) is merely affirmation of the fact that PDM’s core objective is changing Khan, not the system that brought Khan to power.
Ironically, the PPP-PML-N fallout is also a reflection of any eventual post-Khan political landscape and individual interests of these two political giants.
Beyond this core objective none of the PDM parties have been prevented to pursue their own core electoral and parliamentary interests as was evinced by the division of support of smaller alliance parties supporting or opposing Gillani’s second election.
Ironically, the PPP-PML-N fallout is also a reflection of an eventual post-Khan political landscape and individual interests of these two political giants. The PML-N is interested in mid-term elections that it reckons can bring it to power in the Punjab and Centre stemming for the popularity of vote ko izzat doe. Hence, its interest in immediate mass resignations from parliament and the dharna.
The PPP foresees no fundamental change in its fortunes that can translate into any electoral or power gains other than hanging on to Sindh, which it already has in hand. So why should it pave the way for Sharifs to replace Khan without any change in the system that can allow it to make Bilawal Bhutto the prime minister? The PPP is aiming for that goal but understands that a more realistic timeline for this is the 2028 election so why burn all its boats for no guarantees and risk political wilderness in the interim, it reckons.
The PPP – having won elections and formed federal government five times, more than any other party – is far too clever to ignore fundamental risks involved in outcomes of impulsive tactics. It genuinely fears – its instincts not misplaced – that resignations may result in by-elections (however impossible they may seem, according to an adamant PML-N), which may end up in a manipulated two-thirds majority for Khan and result in undoing of the 18th Amendment and institution of a presidential system. That is too great a long-term risk for any kind of quick reward.
The criticism of the PPP as having seemingly sabotaged PDM unity is unwarranted. If the principal goal of PDM is to remove Khan than the PPP offered a practical and political strategy to unravel the Punjab government first and then impose a cascading effect on Khan’s Islamabad citadel. The PML-N would be the biggest beneficiary of such an outcome. But the PML-N wants nothing short of a shortcut to Islamabad.
Even if the PPP and the PML-N sulk on within the PDM as they are doing now, or in a worst-case scenario Maryam and Maulana push out Bilawal from the platform, the opposition alliance’s principal objective – the removal of the Khan government – will remain intact.
Both the PPP and the PML-N will continue their political confrontation with Khan within or without the PDM. This confrontation is better served with the PPP and the PML-N remaining within the PDM. The PML-N is stronger with the PPP on its side, even if differing in tactics. This logic alone is likely to keep the PDM intact.
The author is an analyst and rights activist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org