THE political see-saw has again tilted in the PTI’s favour after the failure of the PDM’s latest huddle. Yet one can’t write off the PDM as the factors fuelling its rise still exist, which many link to the aim of autocratic hidden forces to hog politics.
This includes the alleged 2018 pre-poll rigging described in the EU’s report. Credible global and national sources accuse the same elements of rigging most of our national elections and referenda. The 2018 electoral developments were more nagging though, as it wasn’t business as usual but a sharp reversal after the fairer 2008 and 2013 polls. Many have pointed to political forays which keep the PTI in power, eg the recent Senate polls where Yousuf Raza Gilani won a seat but lost to Sadiq Sanjrani for the chairman’s post. And there is autocracy via crackdowns on the opposition, media, institutions and dissenting individuals. Finally, there is the PTI’s poor showing that has created misery for the people. While this only justifies protests within the system, the first three justify protests against a hybrid system.
Many find the cause apt but not the PDM’s credentials to fight it given the poor record of allied parties. But such parties are par for the course in developing states and people still often support their struggle against more autocratic forces. Aung San Suu Kyi’s regime in Myanmar did poorly and didn’t oppose the military. Yet thousands are risking their lives against the dismissal of even this weak party as they realise autocracy is far worse.
At home, the PPP and PML-N were both fairly elected last time and were less autocratic and beholden to certain elements than Suu Kyi. This gives them enough credibility despite their other gaps. Opposing their struggle will make the political hold of others tighter.
Pressure subsides with strong strategies.
Pressure subsides not due to polite moral talk but only strong strategies. The PDM could remain relevant despite divides and setbacks via such strategies. The PML-N and JUI-F suggest muscular ones like dharna, resignations and public shaming. The PPP prefers action in parliament with resignations being the last resort. Clearly, the PDM’s recent gains were via PPP’s wily electoral moves.
Moreover, such moves carry low costs compared to dharnas and resignations. The issues faced in having a dharna during Ramazan, Eid and the current Covid-19 phase also give the PDM a natural break. Thus to keep the alliance intact, the PDM may give PPP a last chance for a no-confidence vote against the Punjab chief minister. But it may also demand a clear pact that if this fails, the PPP would agree to stronger strategies.
The PDM may fine-tune its strategies to placate PPP and enhance their impact. Public shaming is a low-effort strategy which forced certain elements to assume short-term neutrality, leading to Gilani’s win. The PML-N and JUI-F alone boast several figures who can do so with much swagger and relish. But this may not be enough as the end of neutrality showed. Resignations carry impact but also risks. The PDM may please PPP by not resigning in Sindh but increasing pressure steadily by resigning stepwise from PTI-majority assemblies to deprive them of their legitimacy.
By gaining a majority in the Senate, the PDM has also reduced PTI’s ability to pass iffy constitutional changes in case the opposition coalition leaves the National Assembly. While legally the PTI could carry on for a while even with shrivelled assemblies as it only needs 25 per cent quorum, or wait for fresh election on vacated seats, neither would be easy in the face of economic and external threats amidst further PDM steps.
These steps may include a high-effort Islamabad dharna. But such dharnas always fail. So PDM hawks may move it to where it would carry more punch. Also, our history shows that daily multi-city daytime protests carry less managerial burden but more impact than a 24-hour dharna in one city, as in 1969, 1977 and the lawyers movement. The PDM could effect all these strategies even if PPP doesn’t join fully. Its absence will only matter a bit on the issue of Assembly resignations. This is why it is too early to write off the PDM which should not focus on seeking PTI’s ouster directly but on the more valid demand of asking establishment elements to eschew politics. If the PTI can then survive on its own, fine. Otherwise its era will die a natural death.
These strategies will cause mayhem. So even if the PDM wins, will the disruption be worth it as the PPP and PML-N will misrule as before? For those always seeking wonky shortcuts, the answer may be no. But for those with a long-term, organic view of politics, it will help attain the realistic aim of catching up with Saarc states where democracy and civilian sway have given non-dramatic but notable progress.
The writer is a progressive political economist.
Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2021