What’s next in opposition’s arsenal after Senate debacle?

Updated August 15, 2019

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PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto- Zardari, PML-N Shehbaz Sharif and National Party President Hasil Bizenjo address the media after a joint opposition meeting on August 4. — DawnNewsTV screengrab/File
PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto- Zardari, PML-N Shehbaz Sharif and National Party President Hasil Bizenjo address the media after a joint opposition meeting on August 4. — DawnNewsTV screengrab/File

PESHAWAR: Smarting from the humiliating defeat in their attempt to unseat Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, bruised and fractured opposition parties are wondering when and how to plan their next move.

The grand multiparty opposition alliance against the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to go into a huddle soon to discuss defections in the August 1 Senate election that culminated in a victory for the PTI-backed Sanjrani and also, when and how to plan the next move, according to two opposition leaders Dawn spoke to.

“There is no doubt that this was a setback and has caused demoralisation,” ANP leader and a member of the opposition alliance’s Rehbar Committee, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, said. “We said that we need to sit down and reconsider our options.”

“The momentum that we gained has suffered a setback and, therefore, we would prefer that the opposition long march toward Islamabad is delayed by a month or so, so that we reinvigorate our workers. The end goal is to remove the government,” he said.

Multiparty conference against ruling coalition expected soon to discuss defection of opposition senators

There is no disagreement within the Rehbar Committee that the failure of the no-trust motion against the Senate chairman that saw 14 members from the opposition parties switching sides in a secret ballot was a setback and had caused ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misgivings’ about the intentions of the two major political parties, the PPP and the PML-N.

But it was the PPP which was being viewed with more suspicion after some reports alleged that its under-detention co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari had a meeting with a property tycoon on the night of the election that led to a change of heart and ultimately changed the outcome of the Senate election.

The Rehbar Committee members acknowledge that the issue was raised at its last meeting and they were assured that no such meeting had taken place with the real estate mogul nor did the party leader and lawyer Farooq H. Naek had any meeting with Mr Zardari prior to the Senate secret ballot.

Nonetheless, junior opposition parties want the two major parties to find out and punish defectors before they could plan their next move. “This isn’t easy and will take time,” Mr Hussain said. “And this will mean a change in the planned opposition march on the federal capital,” he added.

Akram Khan Durrani, the JUI-F leader and chairman of the Rehbar Committee, did not rule out the possibility of change in timing of the long march. “It could be early or it could be moved slightly later,” he said.

His party chief, the wily Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while addressing a party rally, gave until August to the government to quit or face opposition long march on the federal capital. His announcement even took his main opposition partners by surprise.

Now half way through August, some opposition parties — whose frontline leadership is in lock-ups — wonder whether they are at all ready for a march any time soon. “The momentum is broken and we need to start afresh,” the ANP leader said.

In his reckoning, the proposed march could be delayed till early or mid-winter to allow parties to re-energise their base.

Mr Durrani said he had requested Maulana Fazlur Rehman to convene the multiparty opposition conference at the earliest to discuss the issue.

“There is an urgency, the like I had never seen before, particularly from the PPP and the PML-N, to set a date for the million march,” he said. “The meeting will set the date and time for the million march which can be early or can be later.”

But while Mr Durrani sees urgency on the part of his other opposition partners, the PPP has been clear it doesn’t want the “system” to go down under the PML-N as with some frontline leaders thrown behind bars, it has been less than forthcoming under its leader Shahbaz Sharif.

With the exception of some small opposition parties, the only stridently vocal, clear-headed and more eager to launch an anti-government march on Islamabad is the JUI-F.

And there is a reason for it. The Maulana has been pulling huge crowds lately; the ones in Peshawar and Quetta were really huge. And his workers seem to be mobilised in the name of Namoos-i-Risalat. He has been good at mobilising his rank and file in the name of religion and his rallies have suffered relatively less media blackout than the major opposition parties, particularly the PML-N rallies in Punjab.

No wonder then that the JUI-F, with its mostly madressah-graduated following in KP, is being viewed by the government as the most serious challenge.

Those in the know of things say that the KP government was briefed recently on the October-March and was told that the party had the potential to draw hundreds of thousands of present and former students from nearly 4,000 Deobandi-affiliated madressahs from across the province.

Economic stress and the use of religious card would be a rallying slogan to pull in huge crowds. More than 90 per cent of those in attendance at the huge Peshawar rally were found to be from madressahs.

The government seems inclined to take a set of “soft and hard” measures to cut down the Maulana’s and other opposition parties’ onslaught on Islamabad. Will this give a further fillip to the opposition momentum or the march will fizzle out before it reaches its climax remains to be seen.

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2019