A year of political uncertainty

December 26, 2021

Politics continued to dominate the year. The PTI struggled with governance and the opposition with meaningful resistance

A year of political uncertainty

Prime Minister Imran Khan has set a good example by conceding defeat in the first phase of local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some analysts believe, however, that it was not merely a poor selection of candidates that resulted in Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s defeat at its ‘home ground’. They say its decision in 2018 to change the winning combination and replace Pervez Khattak with Mahmood Khan, too, was a factor. Electoral defeats are mostly a result of bad policies, poor governance, rampant corruption and organisational fissures. All of these combined to allow the opposition to take a slight lead over the ruling PTI despite its own poor performance.

Many believe that similar results are likely in the Punjab for the same reason i.e., poor selection of the provincial chief executive followed by weak governance. The PTI government appears to be reluctant to hold local government polls ahead of the general elections but they have little choice in the matter after the Supreme Court directives in this regard.

For their part, opposition parties have failed to dislodge the PTI government. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), weakened through disunity, was unable to launch meaningful resistance this year.

Yet, the year belonged to the opposition. They won most of the by-elections, cantonment board elections and the first phase of the local government elections. The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) kept winning in the Punjab, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Sindh and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The opposition once again failed to win the chairman’s seat despite a majority in the Senate. While former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani won the Senate seat from Islamabad despite a formal PTI majority in the electoral college, the PPP ditched the PML-N and took the office of leader of opposition with the support of treasury senators. This led to the break-up of the PDM and consequent bickering between the old rivals. It was a repeat of 2020, when despite a clear majority the opposition had failed in its bid to oust Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani.

The year 2021 also belonged to Maulana Fazl ur Rehman in that the JUI-F finally showed signs of revival after it appeared to have been wiped out in KP. The Maulana has been rewarded for being perhaps the only major opposition leader who has been consistent in putting up resistance to the PTI. His JUI-F had wanted the opposition to reject the 2018 election results and go all-out against the PTI government. Failing to convince the other opposition parties, the Maulana went solo and staged a dharna besides holding public meetings and rallies throughout Pakistan. This helped mobilise the party cadre and that paid off in the local polls.

The change of Maulana’s political fortunes is being seen as a major development in the context of the situation in Afghanistan and compared to the events of 2002 when the JUI-led Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) had formed government in KP.

Pakistan is an interesting country when it comes to politics. For years, the only certainty this country has had is uncertainty. That was also the case in 2021.

The JUI-F has surprised the PTI by winning the important mayoral election in Peshawar. While the PTI has gracefully accepted its defeat, setting a good precedent, there are more lessons for it to learn for it to be able to do better in the next general elections.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government had started 2021 on a positive note. In the global context, Pakistan had fared well in controlling the pandemic, although questions are now being raised about the transparency of its relief efforts. Some of his decisions in October and November, however, resulted in a controversy over the appointment of the new ISI director general and dented his otherwise smooth relationship with Rawalpindi.

In the last quarter, the prime minister appeared to have failed on three major fronts. First, his party’s organisational structure collapsed from Karachi to Khyber, the split was more obvious to outsiders than some party MNAs and ministers have acknowledged after local election losses. Second, his government failed to provide good governance, particularly in the Punjab and the KP. Third, the country saw an unprecedented price hike.

The PTI and its coalition partners, the PML-Q in the Punjab and the MQM-Pakistan and the GDA in Sindh, had a love-hate relationship. The PTI also suffered a setback in Balochistan as its chief minister, Jam Kamal, was ousted in a vote of no confidence.

The year was a mix plate for the key opposition party, the PML-N. The future of the Sharifs – disqualified and convicted party head and three times prime minister, Nawaz Sharif; his charismatic daughter, Maryam Nawaz, who has yet to enter electoral politics; and party president, Shahbaz Sharif – still hangs in the balance. Dozens of other party leaders too are facing serious graft and money laundering charges.

And yet, the PML-N has created history by continuing to win elections and keeping the party core intact.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to install an inexperienced Usman Buzdar as Punjab chief minister has contributed to making the PML-N strong. He was certainly not the PM’s first choice. But after the disqualification of his trusted aide, Jehangir Tareen, he picked Buzdar and sought support from his allies including the Chaudhrys of Gujrat. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, the Punjab Assembly speaker, is currently the de facto chief minister.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, the ruling party in Sindh, has been unable to make sufficient inroads in the Punjab and the KP but support for its candidates has increased in the recent by-elections. Its performance in Sindh has been questioned but it continues to win by-elections.

The controversy emerging from the recently passed Sindh Local Government Bill, 2021 has somewhat isolated the PPP as almost all other parties have rejected the bill on grounds that the provincial government has grabbed a majority of powers of local bodies and the KMC. Local government elections in Sindh next year will be interesting.

The key opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, spent more time during the year attacking each other while looking for some “understanding” with Pindi. The situation is unlikely to improve till the next general elections. Former president Asif Ali Zardari appears to be busy maneuvering in a bid to ensure a decisive role for his party in the next elections. To this end, he has retained working relations with the PML-Q.

Pakistan is an interesting country when it comes to politics. For years, the only certainty this country has had is uncertainty. That was also the case in 2021. Politics continued to dominate the year despite the failure of mainstream opposition parties to mount meaningful pressure on the government.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has entered its fourth year. People still await his much-talked about reforms agenda. With a serious economic meltdown, unprecedented price hike and one-sided accountability, the government is now feeling the heat.

The year that started with promises and assurances is ending on an uncertain note.

Can the PTI stage a comeback before the next general elections? While they still have time, this is an uphill task requiring major policy and organisational overhaul. For now, the otherwise divided opposition may have solace in seeing Maulana Fazl ur Rehman’s JUI-F defeating Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI on its ‘home ground’.

The writer is a columnist and analyst in GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets at @MazharAbbasGEO

A year of political uncertainty