RED ZONE FILES: Why did PDM stumble?

Published January 7, 2021
In this file photo, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM rally in Peshawar. — AFP/File
In this file photo, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM rally in Peshawar. — AFP/File

A week into 2021, opposition parties of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) are beginning to figure out why their campaign against the PTI government is sputtering like a car with a blown gasket. Background conversations with people of the alliance — whose excitement level is tapering off with each passing day — reveal these ten reasons that have enabled them to lead themselves up a garden path.

1. PDM overestimated the commonality of its intra-alliance interests. When the PPP hosted the All Parties Conference (APC) in September, very few could have predicted the nature of the pulls and pushes between the parties in attendance. One PML-N insider now admits that the initial discussions and deliberations among various parties had not taken into account the possibility of Mian Nawaz Sharif adopting the hard anti-establishment position that he did. The lowest common denominator within the alliance was the removal of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Anything more than this veered away from the consensus.

2. PDM miscalculated the nature of the relationship between PTI and the establishment. Once Nawaz Sharif had personalised the nature of his attacks on the establishment, the logic peddled by his party leaders was that this unprecedented nature of criticism would amount to a ‘shock and awe’ impact. The initial salvos did create some consternation but this did not lead to the outcome that was expected — a retreat by the establishment in order to shield itself from such direct criticism. One PML-N leader claims there were some initial contacts from the establishment regarding the personalised attacks from Sharif. However, there was no substantive follow-up and the contacts subsequently dried up — as did prospects of the establishment distancing itself from the PTI.

3. PML-N attacked the establishment as a primary target and made it difficult for other parties to catch up with the intensity of the attack. A PPP leader says Sharif’s naming of the army chief and the head of ISI publicly was — in his party’s assessment — counter-productive and in fact inadvisable. These sentiments are shared by the more pragmatic members of the PML-N and they say the party may now have to backtrack from this course at least for the time being.

4. PDM lacked finesse in its strategy. One parliamentarian who was involved in internal debates agrees that their strategy had various loose ends that remained loose till the end. There was plenty of focus on operationalising the movement through rallies but not enough detailing of how this ‘public pressure’ would translate into specific outcomes aimed at derailing the Imran Khan government. Sharif held the strategy cards close to his chest and while there was plenty of regular and detailed discussions between the second tier leadership of the party, most of this dealt with operational tactics rather than grand strategy.

5. PDM misconstrued the willingness of the common Pakistani to join the anti-government campaign due to inflation and rising cost of living. While these pressures existed for sure, the PDM narrative was unable to fully exploit them in order to get people other than their own workers into rallies. “The required momentum has not built up,” acknowledges a senior opposition leader from Punjab.

According to a parliamentarian who is considered a hardliner in his party, the PDM narrative vacillated between anti-establishment and inflation. He argued that while these two were essentially connected — establishment brought in an incompetent government whose mishandling of governance has led to inflation, etc. — it belies the simple linearity of a successful political narrative.

6. PDM miscommunicated internally. A PPP insider says the APC document was fairly clear in terms of targets, priorities and sequencing of events. Resignations was always supposed to be the last card. However different members started indulging in — what he called — “loose talk” that triggered confusion over what the PDM wanted, in which priority, and in what order. The January deadlines, and talk of a decisive long march and resignations, all these jumbled up into a perception that it was all going down in the first month of the new year. The alliance had to ultimately temper down these expectations while trying to save face. A tough ask.

7. PDM provided the government an opportunity to dominate the narrative. What was supposed to be a question of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resignation became an issue of PDM’s resignation. “We should have anticipated this move,” admits a PML-N senator. He says PDM allowed itself to be dragged into an issue that was not supposed to have been the main agenda of the campaign. One reason this happened was because of a lack of cohesive strategising among PDM parties for narrative-building. “We were all saying our own things on talk shows every evening,” a PDM member complained. In contrast, the government spokespersons would come prepared with a unified message. They made it about the opposition resigning, and forced PDM members to justify not doing so. It was bad politics by PDM, pure and simple.

8. PDM bungled up on the Senate elections. One senior PPP leader says someone misinformed other PDM leaders that if the PPP resigned from the Sindh assembly, the electoral college for the Senate would break up. As a result, Maulana Fazlur Rehman stated publicly PDM was considering depriving the elections of its electoral college. This reinforced a perception that PDM’s objective was to ensure senate elections were not held. This in turn reconfirmed the impression that PDM was all set to tender resignations and opt out of the system as a precursor to bringing the house down. However, PPP’s legal experts had to disabuse other PDM leaders of this notion about the breaking up of the electoral college.

9. PDM confused power politics for ideological politics. What started as a grand aim of changing the system and redefining the power matrix in Pakistan between the establishment and political parties is now ending up looking like a conventional campaign to oust the government by negotiating the power equation on acceptable terms. Even though there are many within the PML-N who believe they have asserted civilian supremacy like never before, and have succeeded in framing the debate in civil-military terms aimed at a grand re-set of the equation, the reality may be slightly different. A senator from the treasury benches argues that PDM has in fact strengthened the role of the establishment by exposing the limits of what a combined 10-member alliance can achieve.

10. PDM is still in the game. The government can sit pretty till March but the PDM can still kick up a storm if it can sustain the momentum-mode. The threat of a long march on the capital in the warmer months of March and April remains a possibility.

If Maulana Fazlur Rehman can gather up a crowd and attempt to force a hard bargain with the establishment, there could be unpredictable outcome. So, inside the Red Zone, celebrations might be premature.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2021

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