Can the opposition play its role?

Published September 20, 2020
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

NOW that the opposition has lost the FATF vote in the joint session of parliament, and has called a multiparty conference (MPC) off the back of that embarrassment, where does it go?

To be honest, unless its leadership or, more appropriately, the five- to six-odd individuals who make up the opposition leadership, have a new game plan in mind, the likelihood of changing the status quo must really be close to zero.

The FATF vote comes as the latest setback to the numerically superior opposition in parliament, comprising the Senate and National Assembly because of its control of the upper house. However, little did that control deliver in the past.

Who needs reminding of the Senate vote when the late lamented Senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo lost to Chairman Sadiq Khan Sanjrani in a secret ballot, shortly after a majority of members had stood up in the house in support of the move against the incumbent.

It appears that the options before it will be limited to words and very little action.

You need only search online for the on-the-record remarks of Hasil Khan, as he was exiting the Senate following that vote, to fully appreciate the extent to which representative institutions have been undermined by extra-constitutional forces.

Asked how, despite having a sizeable numerical advantage, the opposition could not win, PPP MNA Agha Rafiullah told a TV programme that he could confirm several of his colleagues received phone calls telling them to stay away from parliament. Some three dozen did.

Pressed who those callers were, who told the parliamentarians to stay away, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said everyone knows them; the members who were called, “have informed their leadership and the matter was also discussed informally in the house”.

“It makes me want to weep how the efficacy of this parliament has been undermined and how it is being made worthless,” lamented the outspoken PPP MNA, adding that though the party in power and its ‘selectors’ may see this as a win, in the long run these things will spell doom for democracy.

While the PPP MNA was quite open about what happened, the PML-N seemed to have a different view, as its leadership defended the absence of some of its members on health grounds and similar extraordinary circumstances, and blamed the loss on the machinations of those steering the session.

Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and former speaker Ayaz Sadiq went on record to say the final count did not mirror the actual numbers in the house as they insisted a majority of opposition members were present, by their reckoning, but the counting wasn’t done properly.

One is not sure if it was the debacle and the embarrassment that came with it that spurred the opposition, or if there were other factors too, but it was announced that an MPC hosted by the PPP today will be addressed via video link by PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif.

PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari will also address the moot remotely. Those physically present are likely to be Shahbaz Sharif and other senior leaders of the PML-N, host Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who will lead his party’s delegation, the JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman and several other leaders of invited parties.

Designated PPP and PML-N leaders were said to be working through the weekend on a draft of the declaration to be approved at the MPC but there were no details at the time of writing these lines about what issues would be addressed.

Given the opposition’s collective view over the past two years, it appears that the options before it will be limited to words and very little action. However, Maulana Fazlur Rehman is appearing more and more desperate as his party’s participation at anti-Shia rallies is showing.

If he is not content with merely strong words, the inevitable question would be if a repeat of his huge march on Islamabad will be on the cards again, and if so, whether the PML-N’s and PPP’s participation this time may extend beyond expressing moral support.

On the last occasion, the appeasers won. The wily maulana will be very mindful of that. While he needs the main opposition parties to add credibility to his efforts, he also knows that his cadres are the ones who will provide the street power. It is not clear to what extent he can leverage that.

So far, on many main issues, the opposition reaction has been a damp squib. Take the issue of the months-long incarceration of political leaders without charges and trampling on media freedoms including the now inexplicably long imprisonment of Mir Shakilur Rehman.

But if the mentioned issues have not galvanised a mass movement led by the main opposition leaders how could one have expected the ‘dealophiles’ among them to raise questions when a news story about the business empire of the family of an SAPM generated shockwaves. His antecedents may explain the silence.

Therefore, when the ‘stay’ of the fine in the Reko Diq case on Pakistan was declared a huge win for the country, the opposition’s silence could have been anticipated. The stay may have brought some respite to the government as it faces a debilitating penalty, but no mention was made in the official statement of ‘conditions’.

One of these is the deposit of over $1 billion or a bank guarantee of the same amount with the World Bank-funded tribunal as guarantee for the ‘stay’ in the case where two mining firms were awarded over $4bn in damages and nearly $2bn in interest payments.

The matter will now be decided next May, giving Pakistan an opportunity to possibly negotiate a settlement that obviates paying the huge penalty. Even then things aren’t as rosy as being claimed.

Sources in the attorney general’s office were distancing themselves from the statement attributed to him claiming a win, while making no mention of the conditionality. There were suggestions it was written and released from ‘elsewhere’.

If the current opposition, with the appeasers dominating it, can’t even capitalise on such a godsend there is little room for any optimism that it can play any pro-people role at all.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2020



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