THE spectacle of two old rivals greeting each other on the floor of parliament may not be worth noticing. But the handshake between Asif Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif in the house this week was more than just a matter of courtesy.
With the PML-N leader having been ‘nabbed’ and the noose tightening around the former president from the PPP, the two opposition parties now find themselves pushed into a corner. The handshake could be a prelude to a more effective alliance against a fumbling PTI government. The latest episode in the political soap opera is getting more thrilling with the opposition going for the jugular. What next?
Take a look: Zardari’s threat
Indeed, there is no imminent threat to the Imran Khan government, but a more strident and united opposition could further jolt a lacklustre and inexperienced administration still trying to find a foothold. Although their top leaders are under a cloud facing graft charges, both the PML-N and the PPP seem to have dropped their initially cautious tone and are now challenging the PTI government more forcefully.
Zardari’s latest harangue targeting not only the PTI government but also the security establishment and the judiciary may be driven by his fear of being indicted in money-laundering and corruption charges. But it certainly has turned up the heat. The wily politician that he is, Zardari is trying to use a beleaguered PML-N for his own political chess game.
The PM’s approach to politics and governance is no different from the short, T20 form of cricket.
However, it remains to be seen if the PPP leader can escape the ‘accountability trap’ by upping the ante. His remarks last week reminded one of his speech some three years ago when he took on the military establishment following a crackdown on some of his closest associates. He later left the country and stayed away for more than a year.
Zardari then tried to mend fences with the establishment when the axe fell on Nawaz Sharif. It seems now politically expedient for both parties, troubled by a judiciary ostensibly backed by the security establishment, to come closer. The PTI government’s own ineptness and blundering have provided them with an opportunity to regain some lost political ground.
Although the government has inherited the economic mess, its inability to deal with one of the most serious economic crisis facing the country in recent years seems to have given the opposition more confidence that the rulers could crumble under the weight of their own blunders. It may be an exaggerated estimation but it is not completely off the mark either.
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Particularly in Punjab, where the ruling party enjoys a wafer-thin majority, its governance has added to the perception of the PTI’s vulnerability. Imran Khan has even failed to convince his own party members that Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, who never held any public office before, was the best choice to lead the administration in the country’s most important and most powerful province. His claim of Buzdar being ‘Wasim Akram-plus’ has exposed Khan’s inability to see the difference between cricket and politics. T20 cricket was not in vogue when Khan was playing, but his approach to politics and governance is no different from that short version of the game.
Buzdar’s performance in the past four months tells a different story. Three power centres — chief minister, governor and speaker of the provincial assembly — have further complicated the problem. The prime minister’s attempt to run the provincial government via remote control has not worked either. The result of recent by-elections showed that the PTI has nor been able to improve upon its mass political support in the province. The failure in Punjab could cost the PTI power.
Interestingly, the opposition parties are now using Imran Khan’s own inanity of threatening to call early elections. Addressing a group of TV presenters last month, the prime minister indicated he could go for fresh elections if his government were to be blocked by the opposition. This is unprecedented talk for a government which has hardly been in power for 100 days. It reinforces the popular perception that Imran Khan has yet to get out of the opposition mindset. Such statements only add to political uncertainty and expose Khan’s immaturity. Indeed, the opposition does not take the threat of an early election seriously, but uses the remark as a political tool.
It is not just about the opposition joining forces and giving a tough time to the government, it is the disarray within that is also cause for serious concern. Matters may not point to the unravelling of a fragile conglomeration of disparate political groups, but the latest development is ominous. The joining of the MQM and the Balochistan National Party (Mengal) in the opposition walkout from the National Assembly this week, in protest against the nonproduction of PML-N leader Saad Rafique in the house, is a sign of the growing frustration of the coalition partners.
The public dissent of some cabinet members on the party’s U-turn on the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), ceding to the opposition demand, is another example of disorder. It is like a rudderless ship plying turbulent waters.
Another issue adding to political uncertainty is the failure of the government to strengthen parliament. It is basically the responsibility of the government to defuse tensions and make it possible for parliament to focus on legislation. On the contrary, it is the PTI that has largely been responsible for the stalemate in the house. It has wasted more than four months because of its irrational position of not accepting the leader of the opposition as chairman of the PAC. Finally, it gave in to the opposition’s pressure, but the dispute over the composition of parliamentary committees remains a cause of impasse in the house.
Now things have become more difficult with the opposition raising the stakes. Its initial stance of cooperation in running the business of parliament smoothly seems to have changed with its newfound stridency. The opposition parties are taking advantage of the weakness and ineptness of the ruling party.
With no sign of the PTI government taking a more prudent approach or making an effort to get the system to work smoothly, matters are becoming gloomier in the country.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2018