Politics beyond the long march

February 27, 2022

How Pakistan Peoples Party and Bilawal Bhutto gain from the long march from Karachi to Islamabad in terms of electoral success is the real question

Politics beyond the long march

The truck decorated to carry Benazir Bhutto on her return from self exile in October 2007 is being readied again. Bilawal Bhutto, her son and Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson, is set to use it for the longest-ever long march led by a political leader. Benazir Bhutto was driven through Karachi on board the truck and, true to character, stood in plain view, interacting with the crowds in spite of police advice to stay behind bullet-proof glass. She had remained unhurt when a suicide bomber attacked the rally killing more than a hundred people. The bulletproof truck has now been upgraded.

The march from Karachi to Islamabad starts on February 27. It will end with a public meeting at D-Chowk on March 9 or 10. Apparently, the purpose of the long march is to build momentum for a possible vote of no confidence against the prime minister. PPP leaders are calling it a decisive move in the party’s political journey as it prepares for the next general elections.

There have been long marches before and not only by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Dr Tahir ul Qadi too have led marches and sit-ins. Arguably, the most effective so far has been the one staged by Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2014.

Yet, in terms of distance covered, the PPP march will be the longest one, covering about 1,600 kilometres and passing through 36 cities of Sindh and the Punjab. The million-dollar question is whether it is a march to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan or to launch an election campaign. Either way, it will be a test for Bilawal, Asif Zardari and the PPP.

The government has tried to underplay the event. Several government leaders have said that the opposition will end up being disappointed. They say that the opposition not only appears to be divided over strategy but also lacks popular support. In a related development, Asif Zardari, the PPP co-chairperson and former president, has succeeded in bridging the gap between the PPP and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) which has decided to welcome the long march. The PPP, in turn, will support the PDM long march.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has planned public meetings as well, is also expected to visit Karachi after his visit to Russia. He will be meeting with the leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan, an ally of the PTI at its temporary headquarters at Bahadurabad. The PTI Sindh chapter will lead a rally from Ghotki to Karachi. The move is aimed apparently to counter mobilisation by Bilawal’s long march.

The PPP plans point to a big affair. A ‘tent city’ with mobile kitchens, mobile washrooms and toilets is planned for all night stops on the way. Almost all MNAs, MPAs and provincial ministers have been part of the preparations. No wonder the PPP has conceived of a solo journey – the party will be targetting mobilisation in the Punjab cities, particularly in the south Punjab. The political workers will have the forthcoming local government elections as well as general elections in mind. For the PPP, elections to be held in 2023 are of greater interest than any elections to be held in three to six months’ time.

The PPP leadership has confirmed that there is no plan for a dharna and the march will end at D-Chowk following a stop at Liaquatab Bagh, Rawalpindi, where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007.

Thus, the purpose seems to be a ‘revival’ of the PPP under Bilawal, who has the disadvantage of not having someone like Benazir Bhutto around. His father, Asif Ali Zardari, with all his political experience and mastery over political maneuvering, has always struggled when it comes to public posture and street politics.

The challenges for Bilawal are enormous. Prime Minister Imran Khan is a much harder politician to deal with than the Sharifs. It would be naïve to take him lightly.

Bilawal has enormous challenges ahead. The PPP is no longer the party it was under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Benazir Bhutto.

First, he has a tough opposition in Prime Minister Imran Khan, an unconventional politician, who still has a popular base among the youth in particular. The PTI is still strong in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) surprised them in the first phase of local government elections but the PTI vote bank has not eroded fatally. The PPP too once used to be a popular party in KP, particularly in Peshawar.

Second, the PPP is still far behind Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and even the PTI, when it comes to mobilisation in the Punjab. What can it offer to the people to win over the important constituency? PPP’s popularity has shrunk with the passage of time since 1988 in particular. Perhaps, Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari misjudged the popular base.

The PPP lost ground support in 2013 elections not only because of bad governance and allegations of corruption but also because of their stand against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The defunct Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, targetted its workers and leaders along with those from the Awami National Party and the MQM.

President Zardari’s decision not to restore judges deposed during Pervez Musharraf’s Emergency Plus also went against him and the PPP. After a long campaign for the restoration of democracy people were expecting better political understanding between Zardari and the Sharifs.

Had the two parties upheld the Charter of Democracy (COD) in its original form politics might have taken a positive turn. This would not only have improved the working relationship between the PPP and the PML-N but would also have allowed the PPP a chance to make inroads in the Punjab.

Losing support in the Punjab caused a serious dent to the PPP’s fortunes.

No big players have joined or rejoined the PPP over the last few years. It still has pockets of support in southern Punjab and it will be interesting to see how Bilawal’s caravan is received during the long march.

Thus, the challenges for Bilawal are enormous. Prime Minister Imran Khan is a much harder politician to deal with than the Sharifs. It would be naïve to take him lightly.

So, if the purpose is to oust the government and it cannot be achieved through the show of strength or vote of no confidence, what would the PPP, and for that matter the opposition, would have achieved? The government could exploit the situation and claim victory.

If a no confidence motion is carried and fresh elections are held within three to six months, or another prime minister leads the government till 2023, Imran Khan could become a more effective campaigner as he has warned the opposition.

The opposition has not revealed its strategy beyond the vote of no confidence. The outcome of local government elections might be decisive in this regard. If the PML-N retains its support in the Punjab, it will be a major setback for the ruling party. That alone could be the reason behind the Ordinance to amend Election Commission rules to allow ministers and elected representatives participate in election campaigns. The decision was apparently taken in view of the PTI’s weakness in handling the Punjab where Chief Minister Usman Buzdar is seen lacking the capacity to address public meetings.

The PPP leaders, including Bilawal and Asif Zardari, have all this in mind and believe that the long march will help them mobilise public opinion in their favour.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of ‘people’s politics’ in Pakistan, used to travel by train as he considered it the best way to keep in connect with the people. Benazir Bhutto travelled both by train and by road.

The important thing is how much the PPP and Bilawal gain from the activity in terms of electoral performance – both in the local government and general elections. One thing is certain; Bilawal wants to be in the driving seat in the future and to prove that the PPP is still in the game.

The writer is a    journalist, analyst and columnist for Geo, The News and Jang   Twitter:    @MazharAbbasGEO

Politics beyond the long march