Representatives of the divided opposition met on Saturday at incarcerated former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's opulent Murree residence to hammer out an agreement over a joint candidate for the September 4 presidential election.
PML-N's acting Secretary General Ahsan Iqbal, addressing the media after the huddle, said the opposition would announce its joint candidate for the head of state's office tomorrow (Sunday).
"It is important for Pakistan that the opposition come together and nominate a joint candidate for the office," he said.
Speaking on behalf of the opposition parties, Iqbal, while supporting the right to vote for overseas Pakistanis, nonetheless criticised the Election Commission of Pakistan for trying to implement the electronic polling process 'in haste' before the upcoming by-polls.
“The election commission’s online system already failed during the general elections. We therefore disagree with the hasty implementation of the [electronic] system of voting for overseas Pakistanis,” Iqbal said.
Touching upon alleged “threats” received by opposition leaders, Iqbal said: “ It is the duty of the government to provide security to opposition leaders, and the incumbent government should take notice of the threatening calls made to certain leaders of opposition parties.”
PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif and leaders Ayaz Sadiq, Marriyum Aurangzeb and Dr Tariq Fazl Chaudhry had arrived at the house earlier this morning for the meeting.
The PPP, represented by former opposition leader Khurshid Shah and leaders Sherry Rehman, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Raja Pervez Ashraf and Qamar Zaman Kaira, arrived later in the afternoon.
The Awami National Party's Ghulam Ahmed Bilour and Miyan Iftikhar and the National Party's Hasil Bizenjo were also in attendance.
The decision to call the meeting had been made by PML-N leaders after a PPP delegation visited the former’s secretariat in Lahore a day before Eidul Azha (Tuesday) to seek support for Aitzaz 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 Khursheed Shah, had met the PML-N leadership after the latter expressed reservations over the nomination of Ahsan, who had, in a TV interview, uttered uncharitable words about Nawaz and his wife Kulsoom’s ailment.
After their meeting, PML-N’s Ahsan Iqbal had quoted PPP General Secretary Farhatullah Babar as saying that Ahsan’s name for the president's slot was "not final".
However, Iqbal had feared that if the opposition remained divided on launching a joint candidate, it would give a free hand to the ruling PTI to install its nominee, Dr Arif Alvi, as president.
Sources in the PML-N had told Dawn that Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif had discussed the presidential election with his elder brother during a meeting at Adiala jail on Thursday.
On Friday, PML-N Senator Pervez Rashid had asked Ahsan to apologise to Nawaz Sharif for criticising the latter. Talking to reporters after meeting Nawaz in Rawalpindi, Rashid had said that the PML-N could consider Ahsan’s nomination only “if he visits Adiala jail and apologises to Nawaz Sharif”.
When contacted, PPP secretary general Babar had refused to comment on Pervez Rashid’s condition for 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 Ahsan as a candidate for the coming presidential elections.
A marriage of (in)convenience
The grand opposition alliance formed by 11 parties soon after the July 25 elections had fallen apart within weeks following the PPP’s refusal to vote for Shahbaz Sharif in the election for the prime minister's office despite it earlier agreeing on a formula that had authorised the PML-N to nominate any candidate for the PM's office.
The rifts had only grown with the nomination of PPP's legal wizard, Aitzaz Ahsan, as a candidate for the post of president.
PML-N leaders who came to know about Ahsan’s nomination through the media had reacted strongly and stated in categorical terms that Ahsan could not be considered a 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 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 conceded that the PML-N seemed also to be taking the same position.
“In my opinion, the PML-N seems to be justified in its position of not supporting Ahsan”, he added.
The PPP leader said his party was hoping that in 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 Ahsan,” he said. Similarly, the PPP believes that the PML-N will not stick to its condition that 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 Election Commission of Pakistan has already announced the schedule for the presidential election, which are to be held on Sept 4 — five days before the expiry of the five-year term of the incumbent, President Mamnoon Hussain.