One thousand days in opposition

One thousand days after the 2018 election, what is the opposition up to?

One thousand days after the 2018 election, living in the heart of the Punjab, Lahore-based Ahsan Zahid, a staunch supporter of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) feels disappointed and, at times, even abandoned by the party he continues to pin his hopes with. For Zahid, 28, a lack of clarity and direction is adding to the confusion among young supporters of the party like him. “When the PDM was formed, it seemed to be a good thing for the opposition political parties. The alliance managed to give the government a tough time with its impressive rallies.”

The PDM Zahid talks about is the multi-party alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, that had appeared to breathe a new life into the then cornered opposition, following its formation in September last year. Including major political parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl, and the Awami National Party, it was initially an 11-party strong alliance.

While Zahid may be right in his perception of the initial fascination with the alliance, he is also mindful of its practical limitations. “Obviously it was a great thing to finally see a united opposition stand together against the PTI,” he says, “but it wasn’t meant to last long”. “There was always a trust deficit among the opposition parties. It prevented their uniting against the ruling PTI,” says Majid Nizami, a political commentator at the political cell of Geo News. “Despite an impressive initial show of strength, the PDM couldn’t sustain.”

Nizami says the PDM was unable to sustain its pressure on the government through its platform and street agitation. “They didn’t take their movement and agitation to full throttle.” While there are many contributing factors, he says, the alliance parties “never accepted one another whole-heartedly”. “When you are not in it whole-heartedly, are you really even trying?”

While that may be rooted in years of political rivalry, after one thousand days of governance, there appear to be other far more convincing factors to influence the opposition to keep it a notch down. Insiders say while the opposition, and particularly the PML-N, has no love lost for the PTI to hold back their agitation, none of the parties want to be part of the governance “mess” the PTI currently finds itself surrounded in, and hence are complacent in pushing the PTI to the edge but not over the cliff – just not yet.

Nizami agrees.

“Look at the economic situation, governance issues, and the pandemic – they didn’t want to take that responsibility smack in the middle of the crisis.” The same, he says, applies to not pushing for the ouster of the much critiqued Usman Buzdar, the Punjab chief minister. “The PML-N thinks it will benefit them in the next elections.”

Dr Rasul Bukhsh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management and Sciences, says that since the PTI came into power, a thousand days ago, the opposition’s one-point agenda has been to prevent it from undertaking reforms. They have done this by challenging the legitimacy of the 2018 general elections.

“But the opposition is fragmented,” he says, adding “to the Pakistani electorate, they do not make any sense.”

Thirty two-year-old Shahzad Shafi is disillusioned with the breakup of the opposition alliance. Hailing from Multan, Shafi works as a software engineer in Islamabad, and is a die-hard PPP supporter. “When the PDM was formed, the workers were unhappy with the alliance even if they understood the need and politics of it. To see it end is disappointing because the opposition is very visibly divided – the other powers are happy about this.”

But Shafi hopes the PPP will offer more to the common man on its own. “The PPP offers progressive thought. Our ideology was very different from the others in the alliance.”

For Ahsan Zahid, the PDM’s collapse works in favour of the PML-N. “Look at what happened in the Senate elections. It felt like a betrayal,” he says. But Zahid tends to agree with the PPP on the issue of resignations citing PML-N’s performance in the recent by-polls in both NA-249, where it lost by a close margin to the PPP, and in PP-84, where it secured a victory.

“Resignations are not the solution. They need to stay in the parliament because that’s where you draw your legitimacy from.”

PTI’s claims of inheriting a struggling economy and a deluge of governance issues has often been questioned as grounds for its “more politics and less work” policy. Commentators say that may well have to change if the party is eyeing the next election. “After three years in power, you talk about the progress made and delivered. You do not simply keep crying about what challenges you inherited because of previous governments,” says Nizami.

And there’s more.

“Over the last six months it has become very clear: the opposition doesn’t any longer want the government gone. They want to throw dirt at them citing PTI’s governance failures because for now it seems most of it is bound to stick.”

The writer is a Lahore-based   journalist and a former   staff member

One thousand days in opposition