ON the first day of 2021, the Pakistan Democratic Alliance has announced it will participate in the upcoming by-elections. In a press briefing on Friday night after the opposition alliance’s meeting in Lahore, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, accompanied by PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz, told journalists they would announce their further strategy after the Jan 31 deadline for Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign. Resignations? Not decided yet. Contesting Senate elections? Not decided yet. Date for long march? Not decided yet.
It is a pretty good start of the year for Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Perched on his high chair he surveys the land he rules and sees his enemies struggling to break free from the shackles of their purported clarity. He watches them scurry back to their drawing boards in a desperate bid to figure the next course of action in the wake of the PPP’s decision to contest the Senate elections, and he allows himself a satisfied smile. In the third year of his five-year term, he can now sit back, look beyond the PDM threat, and focus on getting some governance done — finally. So he thinks to himself, what a wonderful world.
Not so for the Pakistan Democratic Movement.
The wheeling and dealing that will ensue may be the stuff that deals are made of. That done, what next?
In the world of power politics, the PDM appears to be struggling with the plot. According to the original plot, three months of public pressure and agitational momentum should have forced the government, and the establishment, to the negotiating table. If not, the long march to the capital should have done the trick. The establishment — bruised from incessant pressure of publicly uttered rebukes — would have agreed to some settlement that would have either led to the fall of the government in the centre, or in Punjab, or a deal advantageous to the PDM.
At the dawn of 2021, the plot is nowhere near fruition. Instead, the political landscape looks something like this: the PDM will shelve its policy of boycotting polls, participate in the by-elections as well as the Senate elections, keep the resignations card on hold and let the events take their natural course till at least March. The Senate elections will see the PTI and its allies gaining close to a majority which means they would not have much of a problem getting the requisite numbers given the powers of persuasion enjoyed by those holding the levers of power. The PDM would have to console itself with not having given a walkover to the ruling coalition.
The PDM may also show some bravado by putting up a joint candidate for the election of the Senate chairman. This would make for some interesting dynamics. The incumbent chairman Sadiq Sanjrani would first have to fend off an internal threat. The PTI may decide that a three-year term for a coalition partner is sufficient and it is time to have someone from its own ranks elected as the chairman. This will throw up a number of candidates many of whom are already weighing their prospects and trying to have the prime minister’s ear. From the PDM side, the PPP may lay claim for its candidate who could be one of its senior senators in the house. The wheeling and dealing that will ensue may be the stuff that deals are made of.
That done, what next?
Here’s where the PDM really needs a fresh plot. The PML-N and JUI-F may push for the resignations card post-Senate given that they would have had their presence established in the upper house. This would amount to taking the January plan into April. It would also amount to banking on street power to ensure that the government does not trump them by holding by-elections and shutting them out of the national and provincial assemblies. For such a plan to succeed, the PPP would have to join in with the resignations. This would mean resigning from the Sindh Assembly, which would mean sacrificing its own government. A tall order? It certainly looks so at this point in time.
The other option — for the lack of any other option — would be for the opposition to reconcile with the fact that the PTI government will finish its term, and instead focus on preparing for the 2023 elections. The logic is fuelled by three arguments: (1) the PDM may be losing out in power politics but its politics of defiance is finding traction among the electorate which could pay dividends in the next elections; (2) the PTI government’s atrocious performance is weakening its perception among the voters and the PTI ticket is losing value with each passing day (especially in Punjab), so better to let it bleed for another two years; (3) sustain the pressure of rhetoric on both the government and the establishment thereby spiking the cost of manipulations in the next elections.
Both these options are based on certain assumptions which are a direct by-product of the political acumen of the PDM decision-makers. A majority of these assumptions relate to the elephant in the room: the establishment.
The debate is framed in terms of the type of impact the PDM aims to have on the establishment with its various policy options. Filtered down to the core, this debate has generated the following questions for the PDM: (a) is their targeting of the establishment weakening its hold on the system? (b) Is the direct and personalised criticism of the establishment pushing it closer to the PTI? (c) Should the aim be to pressure the establishment to step back from the arena or to offer a better deal to the PDM? (d) How to differentiate between the establishment’s ability to influence politics versus its present policy of supporting the PTI?
These are weighty matters that may not offer themselves for convenient consensus. What complicates matters is that there is difference within the PDM on even their reading of the establishment’s response since the alliance launched its campaign three months ago. Many knots remain untied.
No wonder it is a good start of the year for Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2021