Six months since its formation, the opposition alliance PDM is gasping for breath. Tuesday’s rocky meeting and the PPP’s refusal to tender en bloc resignations have left the parties’ unity in tatters. Does this constitute a turning point for the opposition, and for the government? Here are ten key takeaways:
Since the PDM has called off the long march scheduled for March 26, and the PPP has ‘pended’ the issue of resignations till it is discussed by the party’s central executive committee (CEC), the ‘street’ movement of the opposition is as good as dead. For now. The parliamentary numbers’ option has also been shuttered down ever since the ruling alliance established its numerical superiority both in the National Assembly and the Senate. This means, for all practical purposes, the PTI government is safe. For now.
The PML-N has some soul-searching to do. Its lack of consistency in policy — now blowing hot, now blowing cold — has emerged as a major obstacle in its path forward. This is also reflected in a unique contradiction staring the party in the face: Despite unambiguously being the most popular party in Punjab — were elections to be held today it would most likely sweep them in most parts of the province — it is nowhere near clawing its way back into power. This contradiction presents the party leadership a leading challenge in the wake of the post-PDM, if you will, stage of today’s politics.
The challenge will be: How to keep accelerating the Nawaz Sharif-Maryam Nawaz hardline narrative against the Establishment — evidenced again last week in Sharif’s video message — without losing more political space via varying hues of pressure, to PTI, PPP and the Establishment. The PML-N has raised the flag of constitutionalism in an arena that expands and contracts on the basis of political expediency while wrapping itself inside this same flag. How does PML-N play this game when no one else is willing to play by its rules? PML-N today has the right cause, but does it have the right approach?
The approach to the issue of resignations is a case in point. According to knowledgeable sources within PDM, many senior PML-N leaders were queasy about resignations. The logic these leaders peddled was thus: if we resign, and the government can pull off the by-elections, we would be left high and dry. If we contest the by-elections, that would defeat the purpose of resignations. If we do not, and the elections take place, we would lose our foothold in Punjab which would put us at a serious disadvantage for the general elections. The answer they got, according to sources, was that the government would never be able to hold by-elections. This answer left many dissatisfied because it left too much on “hope” — and hope is usually not a good plan of action.
PML-N leaders appear confident that Shehbaz Sharif will soon get bail. Hamza Shehbaz is already back in the political saddle after spending two years in jail and is busy surveying the lay of the land. Maryam Nawaz has without doubt galvanized the PML-N base these last six months and holds the reins of the party firmly. However the implosion of the PDM — at the expense of the PML-N — may force the party leadership to pursue a different line of action, perhaps even within the larger umbrella of the Nawaz Sharif narrative. Could there be a way in which the party blends some ‘smart politics’ into its hardline position? There are murmurs among some senior leaders that Shehbaz’s release, and Hamza’s reactivation may provide the party the nuance that it is missing. One top level source in the party confided that Nawaz Sharif’s intractable positioning has in recent weeks been gradually tempered with a bout of pragmatism. Question is, how can this be operationalised? And who can operationalise it?
The PPP CEC will not meet in a hurry. Even if it does, it is highly unlikely it will announce its support for the resignations issue. The other PDM parties will not resign unless PPP does too. In other words, resignations are not happening any time soon. According to PPP insiders, this leaves their party in an un-difficult situation. It retains its government in Sindh, its leaders revel in some legal relief, it has built a fairly reliable channel of communication with the Establishment, it has revived a useful working relationship with the PML-Q and it has re-established a strong presence in the Senate. Even while negotiations within the PDM were under way the last few weeks, many PPP leaders confided that they were not interested in fresh elections any time soon. The party leadership has something else up its sleeve: a bigger slice of the power pie within the current parliamentary set-up. In the post-PDM phase, that’s the target for the PPP.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman finds himself in a tight spot after Tuesday’s meeting. While the parliamentary game this past few weeks was PPP’s forte, the long march was supposed to be maulana’s time in the sun. Through the parliamentary game, the PPP got Yousuf Raza Gilani elected as a senator. It got some of what it wanted (the Senate chairman election remains open ended till it has run its full legal course). The maulana did not even get crumbs as his candidate for the deputy chairman got pummeled in numbers by the government candidate. Now his long march and resignations have also been taken away from him. The maulana will require a new trick or two to hang on to a semblance of relevance for the near future. He may have some options if PML-N barrels ahead with its hardline narrative, but if Nawaz Sharif also dabbles in some pragmatism, the maulana may find himself as the biggest casualty of the PDM implosion.
The PML-Q has played smart. Real smart. Six months since the PDM launched its movement, the PML-Q has successfully sidestepped partisan controversies, danced around collision points, and smoothly maneuvered itself into a space that is almost bang centre in the arena. Consider: it is propping up the PTI government in the centre and Punjab and can flex its muscles whenever required, it is firmly aligned with the Establishment and a heartbeat away from the chief ministership of the Punjab, it has worked quietly with the PPP — allowing Bilawal to woo it for a change in Punjab — while providing enough support to Chief Minister Buzdar to keep him on his toes while forcing him to constantly look over his shoulder, and it has ensured that the PML-N softens its position towards Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi knowing that if and when the PML-N wants to make a move in Punjab, it would need their support. Pervaiz Elahi’s successful stitching up of the Senate elections in Punjab has elevated his political stock in the system, both for today and for tomorrow.
The PTI is gloating. It thinks it has won. It is confusing victory with survival. It has merely survived. With PDM fading into the background for now, PTI’s internal weaknesses will now come back into sharp focus. Punjab is a mess. It will remain so because as per Red Zone insiders the prime minister has no plans to replace the chief minister. According to these sources, he had indicated about ten days ago that he might re-consider his support, and this had been communicated to the powerful quarters also, but then he changed his mind. The PML-Q would prefer Buzdar to stay unless they get the slot. The prime minister is in no mood to oblige them with the top post for now. The PML-N would want Buzdar to stay. He makes their victory in the general elections from Punjab that much easier. PML-N would only settle for a change in Punjab if — and that’s a big if too right now — they get the chief ministership. They can’t manage the numbers without PML-Q. Why would PML-Q give them the top slot in such a scenario? In essence, everyone would want Buzdar to stay — except the Establishment. And that is the danger for PTI.
The PDM chapter may be closing, but the book is a long one. All stakeholders have to fight their own demons now. Welcome to the jungle.
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2021