A DAY after the campaign finale in Lahore on a freezing night in December, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, gave Prime Minister Imran Khan until January 31 to pack up, or else to face an opposition march on Islamabad. As he uttered the challenge, since October 16, the motley coalition of politicians of disparate and divergent shades had been on a roll, attracting huge, cheering crowds amid the revival of Covid-19 infections, party workers’ arrests, road blockades, and other constraints.
The PDM has conducted rallies in six major cities since its inception in September; three of them are in Punjab, the PML-N bastion currently governed by a PTI-led coalition. The military establishment seemed dissatisfied with the PML-N narrative targeting the bigwigs if the government displayed increasing signs of concern about the opposition’s ability to draw in huge crowds. Similarly, observers contend that the government’s high-handed tactics to somehow discourage people from engaging in PDM rallies is just one indication of rising anxiety within the PTI ranks over the declaration of the long march to the capital ahead of the March Senate elections. Few see the PDM initiative, however, enjoying a lot of success.
The alliance will gather resignations from its lawmakers between the first-phase finale in Lahore and the threatened march to Islamabad, hold another series of national rallies and, more specifically, attempt to resolve internal gaps over future policies. Analysts maintain that, unless they are confident of new surveys within three months of their resignations, neither the PPP nor the PML-N can leave the assemblies.
The reaction of Imran Khan to the PDM challenge was characteristic of him. The opposition is blackmailing me,” he hit back as his office released a rare picture of him at his sprawling Bani Gala estate relaxing with his dogs the day the opposition held its Lahore rally.” I’m not going to give up or abandon corruption charges against them; I’m not going to give them NRO.” He dared his opponents to leave the assemblies, elected on the basis of anti-corruption promises.” “When they resign, I will hold by-elections.”
While there were visible signs of anxiety among the rulers, not many see the PDM campaign achieving much success in its stated targets.
In order to keep senators from spoiling the party’s prospects in the Upper House, the federal cabinet agreed to address the Supreme Court to request its blessings for advancing upcoming Senate elections to February and conducting the vote by a show-of-hands. The opposition viewed the decision as the absence of confidence in party lawmakers by the leadership.
The conduct of the opposition through 2020 was largely affected by Khan’s fascination with crooked leaders’ brutal transparency and his willingness to ‘jail them’ through a corrupted and divisive process. It was termed a witch-hunt by the opposition that attacks the critics and spares the backers. The fact that Sardar Akhtar Mengal chose to abandon the governing coalition and join the opposition betrays the failure of PTI to keep its allies satisfied,” commented a professor of political science, requesting anonymity.”
Indeed, amid their concerns about the election outcome, the opposition parties were largely fragmented and uninterested in an anti-government movement, mostly watching out for their own interests. For instance, amid a promise to support the initiative in May 2019, the PPP tacitly helped the government foil a PML-N attempt to oust Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani. Later, both the PML-N and the PPP supported Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s pledge to enter his long march to Islamabad in November of the same year to condemn the suspected electoral rigging. Both major parties have backed off despite egging him on.
When the military reportedly intervened to obtain help for the imprisoned Nawaz Sharif and had him sent for treatment in London, their ‘cooperation’ paid off, and Asif Zardari was released on bail in a money-laundering lawsuit. Subsequently, both sides willingly endorsed a bill expanding the tenure of the army chief for a further three years. Without any substantive discussion, the statute was enacted quite hastily.
However, since then, the professor emphasised, the establishment was not very helpful in having some breathing room for their politics for the opposition parties, even though they were led to believe that their support for term extension would “bring them close to the establishment as an alternative to PTI” again. In the following months, events revealed that the reading of the mood was incorrect, as the government increased transparency, booking critics and close family members in new cases of corruption.
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif, who also leads the “doves” of his faction, fled back home just before the borders of the country were closed over the Covid-19 pandemic, hoping to be “rewarded,” only to first find himself in a political wasteland and then in jail. As NAB introduced fresh lawsuits, the PPP also found the noose tightened around its leadership. Later, an investigation into corruption was also initiated against Maulana.
The professor added that with the transparency noose tightening around their heads, the concerns that PTI would secure a plurality in the Upper House also pushed the disparate parties together. “The opposition suspects, and rightly so, that if the government in the Senate improves its numerical strength, it will use its majority to bulldoze them and squeeze their political space further,” the professor said.
Like others, he claims that the role of Nawaz against the military leadership and his narrative of civilian dominance was nothing more than an effort to curry favour with the establishment to win some space in Punjab for the politics of his faction. Similarly, the PPP worries that if the PTI were to gain a majority in the Senate, the 18th amendment would be reversed, which would be counterproductive to its rule in Sindh. Therefore, we saw Maryam coming out of hibernation months, Bilawal going more outspoken and Nawaz attacking the generals, but as an organisation, not the military.
The journey of PDM from its establishment to its rally in Lahore was not without serious ‘distractions’ from its agenda. First came Sheikh Rasheed’s ‘disclosure’ of a secret meeting with leading generals between opposition figures, Bilawal, Shehbaz and others. The leak, he said later, was supposed to reveal the opposition’s “duplicitous” conduct. The opposition, for its part, explained that “sensitive” matters relating to Gilgit-Baltistan were addressed at the conference, and denied that the political situation had ever arisen.
This was accompanied by a ‘leak’ by the ISPR leader that Mohammad Zubair of PML-N had arranged two meetings regarding Nawaz and Maryam with the army chief. The meetings were demanded by Zubair, he said, and that the ISI leader was present on both occasions as well. Zubair ‘clarified’ that it was a simple “dinner meeting” and for the last 40 years he had family ties with Bajwa, a point scoffed at by his brother and sitting minister Asad Umar. Maryam “banned” any potential covert communications by her party-men with military leadership to monitor the damage, saying whatever happens from now on would happen in full public view.
A little later, in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack, there was quite a storm over the ‘revelations’ of former speaker Ayaz Sadiq pertaining to a conference that was held to take opposition into confidence over Indian violation of Pakistan’s airspace. It was the fear of an attack by India, according to him, that forced the government to release the fallen Indian air force pilot. The government and the army also denied the assertion, with the PTI arguing that India was supported by the PML-N narrative.
In November, when both Bilawal and Maryam spent weeks campaigning for their parties in the expectation that a victory would help them prove to the security establishment that the new government had lost popular confidence, a distraction came in the run-up to the Gilgit-Baltistan elections. The PDM rally in Quetta was also skipped by Bilawal, opting to answer it through a video connection from the land of the Ibex and Markhor.
Such diversions indicate that the PDM parties lack coherence of intent and leave their choices open for achieving their own objectives, and because of their previous encounters, they remain distrustful of each other,” the professor argued. “The opposition, on the one hand, poses as a standard-bearer of civilian supremacy, while, on the other, it feels no resentment at trying to secretly ingratiate itself with the army.”
“It is unlikely that the PDM would drive Imran out of his office. If the establishment on its own chooses to act differently, the PDM campaign has small chances of survival, something that at this moment seems impossible. PDM can at best gain back some breathing space,” an online journalist said.
But before that occurs, in the first quarter of 2021, the nation may experience several politically turbulent days.