ISLAMABAD: A divided opposition is meeting on Saturday (today) in an effort to evolve consensus on a joint candidate for the office of the country’s president as the deadlock between the two major parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — over unilateral nomination of Aitzaz Ahsan by the former still persists.

A multi-party conference (MPC) of 11 opposition parties is being hosted by the PML-N at the Kashmir Point residence of the party’s supreme leader Nawaz Sharif in Murree.

The decision to hold the MPC was made by the PML-N leaders after a PPP delegation visited the former’s secretariat in Lahore a day before Eidul Azha (Tuesday) to seek support for Mr Ahsan, who has been nominated by the PPP to contest the presidential election to be held on Sept 4.

The PPP team comprising former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani and former opposition leader in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah met the PML-N leadership after it expressed reservations over the nomination of Mr Ahsan, who had, in a TV interview, uttered uncharitable words about Mr Sharif and his wife Kulsoom’s ailment.

PML-N leader says party will support PPP aspirant Aitzaz Ahsan only if he apologises to Nawaz Sharif over derogatory remarks

The PML-N is also unhappy with the PPP for its act of choosing not to vote for N-League president Shahbaz Sharif in the race for prime minister’s office, and instead voting for the rival Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)’s chairman Imran Khan, on Aug 17, despite having an agreement with the opposition parties during an MPC held Islamabad earlier this month.

After their meeting with the PPP leaders, PML-N’s acting secretary general Ahsan Iqbal had quoted PPP general secretary Farhatullah Babar as saying that Mr Ahsan’s name was not final. Mr Iqbal had feared that if the opposition remained divided on launching a joint candidate, it would give free hand to the ruling PTI to install its nominee Dr Arif Alvi as the president.

Sources in the PML-N told Dawn that Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif had already discussed the matter with his elder brother Nawaz Sharif during a meeting with him at Adiala jail on Thursday.

A statement by PML-N Senator Pervez Rashid on Friday asking Mr Ahsan to apologise to Nawaz Sharif over his controversial statement has almost made it clear that the N-League is not ready at all to support Mr Ahsan as the joint candidate of the opposition for the office of the president.

Talking to reporters after meeting Mr Sharif at the jail in Rawalpindi, Mr Rashid said that the PML-N could consider Mr Ahsan’s nomination only “if he visits Adiala jail and apologises to Nawaz Sharif”.

When contacted, PPP secretary general Babar confirmed that the party had officially received an invitation for Murree’s MPC and that a delegation led by former prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani would participate in it.

Mr Babar, however, refused to comment on Pervez Rashid’s condition for Mr Ahsan’s support and said that they were going to the MPC to hear the arguments of other parties. He also confirmed that the PPP had not yet officially nominated Mr Ahsan as a candidate for the coming presidential elections.

The grand opposition alliance formed by 11 parties having representation in the parliament, soon after the July 25 elections, had fallen apart within weeks following the PPP’s refusal to vote for Shahbaz Sharif despite agreeing on a formula during the earlier MPC that authorised the PML-N to nominate any candidate for the PM office, and then nominating its legal wizard Aitzaz Ahsan as its candidate for the post of the president.

The PML-N leaders, who came to know about Mr Ahsan’s nomination through media, reacted very strongly and stated in categorical terms that Mr Ahsan could not be considered joint opposition candidate because the PPP had not consulted any of the opposition parties before making the decision.

“How can you expect us to vote for the nominee of Asif Ali Zardari after refusal of the PPP to vote for our president [Shahbaz Sharif] in the National Assembly and our candidate [Hamza Shahbaz] for the office of chief minister) in the Punjab Assembly,” PML-N information secretary Senator Mushahidullah Khan had stated while commenting on the PPP’s move. He had even alleged that the PPP had nominated Mr Ahsan intentionally in order to provide a walkover to the PTI in the presidential election.

Talking to Dawn on the condition of anonymity, a senior PPP leader said that they had refused to vote for the younger Sharif only because of his controversial statements against the PPP leadership in the past and now the PML-N had also taken the same position.

“In my opinion, the PML-N seems to be justified in its position of not supporting Mr Ahsan”, he added.

The PPP leader said his party was hoping that in the Saturday’s meeting the PML-N would come up with some suggestions to provide “face-saving” to the PPP “if it is really sincere in keeping the opposition alliance intact”.

“The PML-N can ask us to suggest three or four names, including the name of Aitzaz Ahsan, so that we can say publicly that we have not withdrawn the name of Mr Ahsan,” he said. Similarly, the PPP believes that the PML-N would not stick to its condition that Mr Ahsan should physically seek an apology from Nawaz Sharif and that there could be some way out.

Liaqat Baloch of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal said that they would participate in the Murree meeting, but would not be in a position to endorse any decision as they had already convened a meeting of the MMA in Islamabad on August 26.

“Whatever be our decision, we will announce it after our own meeting on 26th,” he added.

The PTI has approved the nomination of Dr Arif Alvi as the party’s candidate for the post of president.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has already announced the schedule for the presidential election which will be held on Sept 4 — five days before the expiry of the five-year term of incumbent president Mamnoon Hussain.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018