While PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s aggressive virtual address from London at the opposition’s All Parties Conference (APC) on September 20 has set the narrative for the new multiparty alliance, under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), it has also generated a political maelstrom. The ruling party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), took no time in declaring the three-time former prime minister ‘anti-state.’
Then came a litany of disclosures about the opposition leaders regularly meeting the army chief. Seemingly upset with Sharif’s tough anti-establishment stance, the military spokesman also joined the controversy, revealing a recent backroom meeting of a senior PML-N leader with the army chief. Such meetings between politicians and the army leadership are not unusual in this country, where the establishment is seen as all-powerful. But making those interactions public is aimed at rupturing the alliance before it has taken off the ground. The game is on.
The 26-point resolution adopted by the APC vows to oust, what it describes as, the “selected prime minister” through a mass movement, and calls for an end to the establishment’s role in politics. There had been many attempts over the last two years to bring the fractious opposition groups together on a common anti-government agenda but they had so far failed until now.
This was mainly because the two largest parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and PML-N — didn’t want to take actions that could derail the political process put in place after the departure of Gen Musharraf in 2008. But the relentless persecution of opposition leaders in the name of accountability seems to have pushed the two parties to the wall.
The anti-establishment agenda of the newly formed alliance also signifies a marked shift in the opposition’s stance. The focus is now on the security establishment, that is believed to be the real power behind the Imran Khan government. In the words of the ousted three- time prime minister, it’s the “state above the state” that needs to be taken on.
This narrative may have become a clarion call for the newly formed alliance, but it remains to be seen whether it could also help galvanise the masses. Taking on a government that is fast losing its support base is one thing, but directly challenging the all-powerful security establishment will be a serious test for the motley coalition. The alliance has announced a phased plan to oust the PTI government through mass action. But it will be a real test for these parties to bring the people out on the streets and confront the security establishment.
Political parties in Pakistan have found themselves at similar junctures in the past. Revisiting this chequered history can reveal lessons to be learnt and may even provide glimpses of what might lie ahead.
Making and breaking of alliances has been a prominent feature of party politics in Pakistan for the past seven decades.
In most cases, alliances were formed when political parties were inadequately represented in the parliament and the democratic process was stalled under authoritarian rules. The alliances would invariably break up once the objective was achieved and the component parties would go back to their old rivalries and engage in battle for political power.
However, the circumstances of the formation of PDM are different. Although the opposition parties are adequately represented in the legislative assemblies and even have a stake in the power structure, it is the shrinking democratic space that seems to have brought the opposition parties together.
Pakistan’s political history has seen many alliances being formed with strange bedfellows. For example, Combined Opposition Parties (COP) in 1964, the Democratic Action Committee (DAC) in 1968, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) in 1977, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1983, and the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) in 2002.
It was in 1964 when five main opposition political parties formed an alliance under the banner of Combined Opposition Parties (COP) against Pakistan’s first military rule, led by Gen Ayub Khan, who had seized power in a coup in 1958. It was a rare coalition of the left, right and centrist parties, united on a nine-point agenda, that included restoration of direct elections, adult franchise and democratisation of the 1962 Constitution. The parties that formed COP included the Pakistan Muslim League (Council), the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the National Awami Party (NAP) led by Maulana Bhashani, the NAP faction led by Wali Khan, and the Jamaat-e-Islami. It was a formidable alliance, with mass roots in both East and West Pakistan.
In the same year, the alliance put up Fatima Jinnah as its candidate for president against Ayub Khan. The orthodox religious political parties, including the Jamaat-i-Islami, modified their stance and supported a woman candidate for the country’s highest political office.
It was an indirect election and the vote was held amongst the 80,000 “basic democrats.” These basic democrats were members of the urban and regional councils, and constituted the Electoral College for Presidential and Assembly elections. During the campaign, Ayub Khan went on to declare the sister of the founder of Pakistan a ‘foreign agent’ — a tactic those after him have continued to use to discredit opponents. Although the general won the election held on 2 January 1965, amid allegations of widespread rigging, his stranglehold on power had started eroding.
Two years later, in 1967, five opposition parties got together, forming a group incidentally also called the Pakistan Democratic Movement, to continue the struggle for restoration of democracy. Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, a veteran politician, led the alliance. The alliance was later renamed as the Democratic Action Committee (DAC).
In October 1968, Ayub Khan celebrated 10 years of what his supporters described as a ‘Decade of Development.’ But the celebrations triggered a nationwide movement against the authoritarian rule. Led by student and labour unions, the protests turned into a mass uprising. Later joined by opposition political parties, it became the most powerful democratic movement in the country’s history.
Ayub Khan reacted by alternating conciliation and repression. The army was called into Pakistan’s major cities to suppress the protests. And, as the situation went out of control of the local authorities, curfews were imposed in large parts of the country. But all those repressive measures became ineffective in front of a people’s revolt.
In February 1969, Ayub Khan released political prisoners and invited the DAC for negotiations. He agreed to hold fresh elections under a new constitution and not to stand for re-election in 1970. But it was too late for him to reach a political settlement, as violence continued. Meanwhile, he had lost the confidence of his generals.
On March 25, 1969, martial law was again proclaimed and Gen Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the army commander in chief, took over the reins of power. The 1962 constitution was abrogated. The new military ruler promised to hold elections on the basis of adult franchise to the National Assembly, which would draw up a new constitution. He also entered into negotiations with the DAC and leaders of other mainstream political parties.
The opposition alliance demanded the lifting of the state of emergency and the cancelling of the criminal law amendment, which had been invoked against political leaders. The Yahya government agreed to the DAC demands. However, it was hardly a complete victory for the opposition alliance; when it came to the election time, all that was promised by the Yahya government was not delivered.
That period also saw the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former foreign minister in the Ayub government, as the main opposition voice. His populist socialist slogans galvanised the youth, workers and urban middle classes. In 1969 he formed the PPP, which soon became the most powerful political force in the then West Pakistan.
In 1970, general elections were held on the basis of adult franchise. But the military regime refused to transfer power to the East Pakistan-based Awami League, which had emerged as the largest party in the parliament. A military operation in the then East Pakistan led to the disintegration of the country. The military handed over power of the truncated country to Bhutto, whose PPP had won the largest number of seats from West Pakistan.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the Bhutto government was to give the country a new federal constitution. The 1973 Constitution, as it is known, was the first one in Pakistan to be framed by elected representatives. It was passed unanimously. It provided the framework for a functioning democracy.
After the completion of his five-year terms, Bhutto held parliamentary elections in 1977. But the polls were marred by allegations of massive rigging.
Making and breaking of alliances has been a prominent feature of party politics in Pakistan for the past seven decades.
Several opposition parties had formed an electoral alliance, called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) before the elections. The alliance, which mostly comprised right-wing groups, rejected the election results and launched countrywide protests against the alleged election rigging and demanded fresh elections. It also galvanised the support of the urban middle classes.
Some left-wing groups that had suffered persecution under the Bhutto regime also joined the anti-government protests, which continued for months. The PNA’s main strength came from the trading and business classes and industrialists, who had been affected by Bhutto’s sweeping nationalisation of industries and private enterprises. The PNA movement paralysed the government.
It was different from previous opposition alliances, which had all been against military rule. It was a movement against a civilian government accused of curbing democratic rights and turning the country into a police state. It was widely believed that the movement was backed by certain ‘elements’ in the security establishment, who were unhappy with Bhutto’s populist politics.
As protests swept the country, Bhutto finally agreed to hold talks with the PNA. After weeks of negotiations, the two sides did reach an agreement on holding fresh elections. But soon after the accord was finalised, the military moved in and overthrew the Bhutto government on July 5, 1977. The Chief of Army Staff, Gen Muhammad Ziaul Haq, became Chief Martial Law Administrator. The PNA movement too ended in a military takeover, like those before it.
Less than six years after the end of Gen Yahya’s government, the military was back at the helm. Some members of the alliance also joined Gen Zia’s military government. The military regime put the constitution in abeyance and arrested Bhutto and other PPP leaders.
Zia promised to hold elections within 90 days but he never did. Fearing that polls would not deliver results in their favour, most PNA leaders also called for their postponement. Their support for military rule brought into question the PNA’s supposed democratic credentials. In 1979, the military government executed Pakistan’s first elected prime minister on what were widely considered trumped up murder charges. Gen Zia established a harsh rule.
Many still maintain that this was the darkest period of Pakistan’s history.
Zia was not only an authoritarian; he also aspired to turn Pakistan into an ideological state ruled by strict Islamic sharia laws. He pursued a broad policy of ‘Islamisation’ of a particularly reactionary orientation. He was an unpopular and controversial leader, whose survival in power largely owed to the external factors that had emerged after the invasion by Soviet forces of Pakistan’s north-western neighbour, Afghanistan, in 1979. Pakistan became a frontline state and a bulwark in the West’s war against communism.
Bhutto’s execution triggered protests across the country. The reaction was much more severe in Sindh. Thousands of PPP supporters were jailed, and many of them remained imprisoned for the next decade. The first organised opposition movement against Zia’s military regime emerged in 1981, when 11 diverse political parties formed an alliance called the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD).
Besides the PPP, the coalition included the Awami Tehrik, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, NAP, the National Democratic Party, the Pakistan Mazdoor Kisan Party, the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan National Party, the Qaumi Mahaz-i-Azadi and the Tehreek-i-Istiqlal. Interestingly, some of them were part of the PNA movement against the PPP government, but were now united in opposition to the military government.
This tradition of political foes forming temporary friendships continues to this day, as seen by the coming together of the opposition at the recent APC.
Given the lessons of the past alliances, PDM may not be able to bring down the government or weaken the establishment’s hold on politics but, it could well build resistance to any attempt to establish an authoritarian regime.
It took some time for the alliance to organise the resistance. It gained some momentum when, in 1983, it launched a civil disobedience movement. The movement took a violent turn when the MRD workers attacked the Dadu jail and freed scores of prisoners. Government properties were attacked and, in some areas, protesters engaged in armed confrontations with the law enforcing agencies.
This movement lasted for almost three months and its effects were mainly felt in the interior of Sindh. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that rural areas became the centre of a political movement. The military regime resorted to brute force, killing scores of people in interior Sindh.
The movement, however, failed to mobilise people in other parts of the country and, particularly, in urban areas. It largely remained a Sindh-based movement. The Zia regime tried to portray MRD as an Indian-backed conspiracy to destabilise Pakistan, and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s statement in support of the movement was used by the military regime to malign MRD. The regime arrested all top MRD leaders, including Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, the movement eventually forced the military ruler to announce a plan to hold general elections in 1985.
In 1984, Zia called for a referendum, seeking approval for his authoritarian brand of ‘Islamisation’. The MRD boycotted the referendum, and only 10 percent of eligible voters participated. Nonetheless, Zia declared a sweeping victory and hung on to office. In 1984, the military regime allowed Benazir Bhutto to leave for London.
The movement lost momentum after the non-party-based general elections in 1985. The PPP and other allied parties boycotted the polls. But the decision to boycott the 1985 elections proved to be a serious miscalculation.
Contrary to MRD’s expectations, the voter turnout was substantial. A large number of PPP members also participated in the elections, defying the party decision. Following the elections, Zia lifted martial law but remained president in military uniform.
When Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in April 1986, she received an unprecedented public reception. But her attempt to launch a movement for fresh elections failed. The death of Gen Zia in a mysterious air crash in August 1988 brought an end to Pakistan’s longest-serving military government. But his legacy lives on.
Gen Zia not only ushered Pakistan into its longest period of military rule, but had also extended the army’s role in domestic politics much further than earlier military rulers. Previously, the military was seen as the ultimate guarantor of the country’s territorial integrity and internal security. But Zia expanded its role as the defender of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers as well.
His death left the generals with the choice of either imposing martial law again or holding elections and transferring power to a democratically elected civilian government. They went for the second option, realising that a perpetuation of military rule might provoke public resistance and exacerbate the turmoil in an already highly polarised society. However, the generals were not prepared to pull out completely and leave the political field solely to the politicians, particularly to Benazir Bhutto.
In an effort to contain PPP, the military cobbled together the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA), uniting all the right-wing parties under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif. The military leadership justified the move by saying it was necessary for the viable functioning of a democratic system. The main objective, however, was to ensure the military’s continued role in the new system.
By creating a counterbalance in the form of IDA, the generals constrained the new government of a political party that had led the resistance against military hegemony for 10 years. The military-sponsored alliance comprised a mix of traditional power brokers, religious parties, and politicians who had emerged on the scene after the party-less 1985 elections.
While the IDA, which carried on Gen Zia’s legacy, could not achieve any significant electoral gains in the 1988 elections in the three smaller provinces, it did relatively well in Punjab and prevented the PPP from winning an absolute majority in the National Assembly.
The military reluctantly handed over power to Benazir Bhutto at the centre, but prevented her party from forming the government in Punjab — the biggest and most important of Pakistan’s four provinces.
The formal restoration of civilian rule in 1988 did not reduce the military’s clout. A return to the barracks did not mean that the military’s structure of control and manipulation had been dismantled. A hamstrung Benazir Bhutto found herself directly clashing with the army. She survived only 18 months in power; her government was dismissed in August 1990.
The military leadership did not want to take any chances that time. To ensure the IDA’s electoral victory, the ISI financed the election campaign of many top leaders of the alliance. In November 1990, Sharif took over as Pakistan’s new prime minister. He assumed power with much greater advantages than his predecessor had enjoyed. His accession to power brought a rare harmony to the power troika — president, prime minister and chief of army staff.
But this harmony was not to last. Sharif sought to wear down constraints on his power imposed by his old patrons — the military. His government was dismissed midway through his term in 1993. The game of musical chairs continued, as it was now Benazir Bhutto’s turn to form the government again.
She returned as prime minister for the second time in November 1993, just three years after her unceremonious exit. But her second term lasted less than three years. Her government was dismissed in October 1996. This was the third time in eight years that an elected government had been dismissed less than halfway through its term.
In the subsequent elections in 1997, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was re-elected with a large majority. But, predictably, his stay in power was short-lived this time too. He was ousted from the office in October 1999 by a military coup. He was convicted on treason charges and later sent into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Gen Musharraf’s military takeover met with no resistance. Ironically, most opposition political leaders, including Benazir Bhutto — who was then living in self-exile in London — welcomed Sharif’s ouster. Sharif’s authoritarian style of governance, and his desire to become ‘ameerul momineen’ [leader of the faithful], had alienated not only political parties but also civil society. While Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari was imprisoned on corruption charges, Benazir Bhutto had been forced into exile. The divide among the political forces also allowed the military greater space.
Eventually, however, Gen Musharraf’s attempt to consolidate his power brought the two rivals — PPP and PML-N — together. In 2003, the two parties formed the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), to challenge the military-led government. But the alliance never really took off the ground. Both parties participated in the general elections called by the Gen Musharraf government in 2002. PML-N had also lost its support base with the formation of a pro-military faction called the Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid (PML-Q).
In 2006, the two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Sharif, signed in London a ‘Charter of Democracy.’ But soon after signing the charter, PPP entered into negotiations with the military government. Backroom deals had weakened the political forces. Both parties had flaunted the charter for their own vested political interests.
Finally, after a year of upheavals and revolt, the 2008 elections saw the return of democracy in Pakistan. Despite problems, the PPP government completed its five-year term — an unprecedented achievement in Pakistan. The 2013 elections led to a historic transfer of power from one elected government to another. But Sharif’s third term as prime minister met the same fate as his two previous stints in power. Although he was removed by the Supreme Court this time, it was his clash with the security establishment that led to his downfall.
The 2018 elections have produced, what many have described as, a ‘hybrid rule’, with the security establishment propping up a weak civilian administration. It is not surprising that the government has survived despite a very thin majority that hinges on the support of a few disparate political parties.
The alleged support of the establishment may have given the government some semblance of stability, but the balance sheet of the Imran Khan government on the completion of its second year in power is far from being satisfactory. Governance remains the major problem area.
Two years on, there is no sign yet of the PTI government having developed the capability to take rational decisions on critical domestic and foreign policy issues. The government’s increasing dependence on the security establishment for survival has further undermined its ability to improve and course-correct.
For many years, the security establishment has been considered the determiner of national security and foreign policy in Pakistan, but that role appears to have become more pronounced under the PTI government. So, effectively, it is not a parallel system, or a state within the state, but the state itself that the newly formed opposition alliance claims to be fighting.
However, there are few precedents in Pakistan’s recent history where governments have been ousted through street agitation alone. Fighting an administration backed by the security establishment is a tall order. It is hybrid rule that is being challenged, but the PDM is still not willing to play the most drastic card of resigning from the assemblies, for obvious reasons.
Both the PML-N and the PPP would not want to lose their foothold in the power structure. The only thing the alliance can then do is to increase pressure on the government through mass mobilisation on various issues directly affecting the people. But their capacity to mobilise people to overthrow the government remains questionable. There is also a question about the democratic credentials of some of the political parties being represented in the PDM. This is perhaps more of a challenge to the alliance than to the government.
That the formation of the PDM has, once again, brought bitter rivals PML-N and PPP together, is nonetheless ominous. Indeed, it signifies the shifting sands of Pakistani politics. Although it may be sheer political expediency that has forced the disparate political groups to join hands, it has already brought a beleaguered administration under pressure. Jointly, they have already made things more difficult for the PTI government, which is struggling to come to grips with a dire economic situation.
The PDM has announced a phased plan to organise rallies across the country from October, and gradually rachet up the momentum. The strategy is to make the final assault some time in March, before the critical Senate elections, which would give the PTI control of the upper house of parliament. The alliance seems quite confident that it can create enough public pressure to force the establishment to pull back from supporting the Imran Khan government.
This narrative may have become a clarion call for the newly formed alliance, but it remains to be seen whether it could also help galvanise the masses. Taking on a government that is fast losing its support base is one thing, but directly challenging the all-powerful security establishment will be a serious test for the motley coalition.
The main battleground is Punjab, the biggest and the most powerful province, that is also the political stronghold of the PML-N. The party seems to have strengthened its position because of the PTI government’s lacklustre performance. The relentless persecution of the party leaders in the name of accountability has led to the closing of the party ranks.
Despite reservations among some party leaders over Nawaz Sharif’s hardline, anti-establishment stance, there is no sign of any split in the ranks. Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif’s arrest is likely to push even the moderates to take a hardline position. The divide between the PML-N hardliners and the pragmatists seems to be narrowing.
Most significant is the resurfacing of Maryam Nawaz on the political stage after a period of hibernation. She has the charisma and ability to mobilise the public. It may be true that PML-N had been unable to bring out the people when Nawaz Sharif returned home, but things seem to have changed over the past two years, especially with the growing public discontent with the PTI government.
Despite its shrinking electoral support base, the JUI-F also has the organisational capacity and ability to mobilise crowds drawn mainly from religious seminaries. It may not present a major threat to the system, but it could bring an ineffectual government under severe pressure.
Given the lessons of the past alliances, PDM may not be able to bring down the government or weaken the establishment’s hold on politics but, it could well build resistance to any attempt to establish an authoritarian regime. A major challenge for the opposition alliance remains maintaining its unity. But, as we have seen time and again, when push comes to shove, even the strongest political opponents can band together to alter the course of history.
Header image: Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, along with other leaders of opposition parties, briefs media personnel after an All Parties Conference | Irshad Sheikh/APP
The writer is an author and journalist. He tweets @hidhussain
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 4th, 2020