What does the opposition want?

19 Sep 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

IT got beat real bad on the floor.

The opposition is now limping over to the multiparty conference (MPC) this Sunday. The agenda of the meeting may be ambitious. Or perhaps not. At this stage, it matters not. What does matter is the situation on the ground and the options that it throws up.

The situation isn’t good. Neither are the options.

First, the opposition may want to make a call on two fundamental choices: (a) Target to remove the government before the term expires in 2023, or (b) Accept the principle that the government should complete its term while deciding to make life as difficult for it as possible. If the opposition decides to opt for option (a), then it will need to figure out how it can achieve this target. The possible options:

  1. Vote of No Confidence: The opposition can exercise this democratic right and no one would begrudge it for doing so. But it doesn’t have the numbers in the National Assembly. It had the majority in a joint sitting but in actuality it did not even have that. Fate pulled a Sanjrani on the opposition — again. The opposition may cry foul and blame mysterious factors for convincing many of its members to enact the disappearing act, but the fact is that even when the opposition has the numbers, it doesn’t have them. So when it doesn’t have them — as in the National Assembly where the vote of no confidence against a prime minister is done — the opposition really doesn’t have the numbers. For the MPC, this then is no option.

If these five options are reason enough that the opposition cannot bring down the government, it can opt for the second choice.

  1. Minus One: A gust of wind blew in this option this summer, and then blew it away. There may have been some murmurs about the seriousness of a change in PTI’s leadership but nothing has come out of it. For now it is clear that Imran Khan’s leadership of the party is under no threat. The opposition may have had internal discussions about facilitating such a transition in PTI through whatever support it could provide, but all has come to naught. For the MPC, this is no option.

  2. Dharna: The opposition could technically aim to bring tens of thousands of people to Islamabad, storm the Red Zone, stage a dharna, disrupt the working of the government and force it to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. Is this feasible? JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman has been pushing for this option. But the PML-N and PPP are not up to it. There are at least two reasons for this reluctance: one, it is unclear whether the parties can bring out so many supporters willing to endure and risk so much for such a long time; two, this option could degenerate into violence and chaos which could have unpredictable consequences. None of these two parties appear willing to go down this path for now. There is a third reason: no third party support is available for such a venture. For the MPC, this too is no option.

  3. Resignations: The opposition could resign together from the National Assembly in an attempt to force a new election. But could such a move hold any weight if the opposition resigned only from the centre and not from the provincial assemblies? Maulana Fazlur Rehman has argued in favour of this option also but leaders of PML-N and PPP have so far not considered resignation as a serious option. They have stakes in the system and mass resignations could also trigger unforeseen circumstances that may not necessarily benefit the opposition. For the MPC, this is a remote option.

  4. Combine Options 4 & 5: The opposition has to be really desperate in order to opt for this option. This would require Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman to forge a consensus that they are willing to risk it all at the roll of a dice. In this case they would be opting to create a constitutional crisis that could send the system packing. Such an option requires a long time to play out in terms of building a narrative, creating the required hype, mobilising rank and file, raising the political temperature to red hot through planned public events and having some concrete plan about how to emerge from the self-created crisis. So far this does not seem to be on the horizon. For the MPC this is a remote option.

If these five options are reason enough that the opposition cannot bring down the government, it can opt for the second choice: let the government serve out its term but make life difficult for it. This choice carries its own options.

a. Become more aggressive and vocal in parliament and on media and attack every government policy and action. There are two limitations: (i) As recent events in parliament have shown, the opposition cannot really block legislation and create difficulties for the government if the legislation is important enough for pressure to be applied on members; and in March PTI and its allies will control the majority in the Senate and will have no problems with legislation; (ii) Press conferences and media appearances by the opposition haven’t really made life too hard for the government so far.

b. Hit the streets. The opposition could agree to initiate a series of protests and rallies across the country against the government. This would generate some noise, some heat, perhaps an occasional clash and random arrests in case of violence. But how long can the opposition sustain this? And to what end? Unless there’s an identifiable outcome and objective at the end of such a strategy, what purpose will it serve other than perhaps mobilising the opposition’s rank and file. If the opposition is reconciled to a 2023 election, why would it want to peak so soon?

The scorecard doesn’t read too well. Perhaps the MPC can pull a magic rabbit out of its hat when it meets this Sunday.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020