THERE may not be a parting of ways as yet but the divide is too wide to bridge. Four months after it was formed, the fate of the motley opposition alliance hangs in the balance. The split within the Pakistan Democratic Movement is much more pronounced now with the PPP not willing to take the system head-on. The clash of narratives between the PPP and the PML-N seems to have intensified after the PDM’s failure to even shake the PTI government, let alone bring it down.
Going by past experience, it will not be easy for the PDM to bring about a change in government from within unless the PTI makes a monumental blunder. The PPP’s suggestion to move a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister and the Punjab provincial government is not likely to succeed. Where does the PDM go from here?
It may be too early to write its epitaph but another round of failure could be fatal for the coalition. The signs are not very encouraging notwithstanding all the tough talk by the opposition leaders. The interests and stakes of the parties in the alliance are too diverse for them to maintain unity of action for a longer period. It is not only the divergence of views of the allied parties but also the fissures within the PML-N that will decide the future of the PDM.
Expediency is the essence of politics. So one should not be surprised by the PPP’s divergence.
It was indeed a rare show of unity when almost the entire opposition leadership met in Islamabad last September. A single anti-government agenda brought the fractious groups together. The formation of the PDM was seen as a serious challenge to a faltering administration. The 26-point resolution adopted by the conclave vowed to oust what it describes as the ‘selected prime minister’ through a mass movement, and called for an end to the establishment’s role in politics.
That marked a dramatic change in the country’s political environment. While challenging the PTI government, the alliance also targeted the omnipresent security establishment seen as the power behind the Imran Khan government. But most of the participants were taken by surprise when Nawaz Sharif in his online address from London launched a scathing attack on the current army leadership accusing them of his ouster from power.
While the former prime minister’s speech electrified many in the audience it also drew scepticism from some others. The PPP had its reservations over the narrative that it saw as a diversion from the main focus. The first sign of the divisions surfaced when Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said in an interview that Sharif’s speech came as a shock to him.
Nawaz Sharif’s tenor became harsher at subsequent public rallies. Perhaps, the thinking was that the attack on the top army leadership would bring the generals under pressure and force them to withdraw support from Imran Khan’s government. That did not appear to happen. It may have been the reason for other PDM leaders to soften their attack on the security establishment. The PPP visibly distanced itself from Nawaz Sharif’s narrative.
Meanwhile, the PDM’s public rallies, though drawing sizable crowds failed to have any impact on the government. The Lahore rally that the PML-N leaders promised would be a game changer turned out to be a disappointment. That also forced the PDM to review its strategy. There is neither any sign of mass upheaval nor of the security establishment stepping back from its support for Prime Minister Imran Khan. The calculation went wrong.
The events of the past four months have also exposed the PPP’s dilemma. While being the founder of the alliance, the party has also been a major stakeholder in the existing political system that the PDM has vowed to dismantle. The party had returned with a larger number of seats not only in its stronghold of Sindh but also the National Assembly in the 2018 elections which the PDM refuses to recognise. In Sindh, it got an absolute majority that has allowed the PPP full control over the province for its third successive term. Losing control of its heartland is certainly not an option for a party that has very little influence in other regions.
Moreover, the Sindh government is dependent on the security agencies to maintain law and order in Karachi. The provincial capital and the country’s economic jugular is politically dominated by the PTI and MQM. As a result, the provincial government has to work with the federal government for the city’s development. That coordination among the three stakeholders — the provincial government, the centre and the security agencies — has continued despite the PDM campaign.
That explains the PPP’s opposition to the move to resign from the assemblies and the storming of Islamabad. It is also sticking to its position that change should only come through constitutional means. It believes that resorting to any extra-constitutional means would derail the democratic process in the country. Not surprisingly, the PPP leadership has maintained a nuanced approach while criticising the security establishment.
However, the situation is very different for the top PML-N leadership. They are facing disqualification or are behind bars on accountability charges. They have no stakes in the current system and nothing to lose. This is also the case with JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman who too is outside the system. Other smaller opposition parties have little to lose as well. Their political survival depends on their association with the PDM.
Expediency is the essence of politics. So one should not be surprised by the PPP’s divergence. It is more important to the party to keep itself afloat than bring down the entire political edifice. There is no likelihood of the PPP leaving the alliance that it helped create, but it is not willing to take the system head-on as such a move could sink the party. As the writer Somerset Maugham said: “The most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.” Political parties in Pakistan have found themselves at similar junctures in the past.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2021