Too great a divide

Published January 20, 2022

THE government’s offer of talks to the opposition on electoral and judicial reforms is a welcome development in a toxic political milieu. Yet it isn’t enough to bridge the vast gulf that exists between the two sides, and the government must take certain measures to prove the sincerity of its proposal. Even though Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has expressed the intention to engage the opposition on electoral and judicial reforms as well as on the process of the NAB chief’s appointment, his words will prove to be mere rhetoric unless they are backed by confidence-building measures to create an environment of mutual trust. However, his categorical statement ruling out the possibility of the prime minister sitting across the table with the opposition leadership, a key ‘prior action’ demand from his opponents, doesn’t give much hope regarding a thaw in the political deadlock in the foreseeable future. The fact of the matter is that neither side wants to look susceptible in the run-up to the 2023 elections.

Indeed, the opposition’s grievances against the Imran Khan administration are not without reason. It is also true that the government was the first to spurn the offer of cooperation from the opposition soon after the PTI’s ascension to power as it pursued its accountability drive against the main opposition politicians. The prime minister’s refusal to shake hands with or consult the opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif — even on issues where he is required to do so constitutionally — has only widened the gap between the two sides. The government’s rejection of the opposition’s objections to the electronic voting law, the central bank’s autonomy as well as other legislation of importance has also been instrumental in turning up the political heat and pulling the treasury and opposition benches further apart.

It goes without saying that the onus of taking the first step for mending its relations with the political opponents is on the government. But the opposition parties — their reservations and grievances notwithstanding — must also seize this offer for opening up a dialogue to resolve some key issues, especially regarding electoral and judicial reforms, for the sake of strengthening democracy in the country. The opposition should understand that it has nothing to lose if it accepts the offer. It will only gain the high moral ground if the ruling party backs out or acts in a non-serious manner. Nonetheless, it will be seen as irresponsible if it rejects the offer, even if the ruling PTI intends to use it to deflate the opposition’s planned campaign to bring down the administration. That said, it still appears unlikely that either side will make the first sincere move in the present-day political environment that is defined mostly by noisy rhetoric and blame games, with both the government and opposition looking for support from the establishment that they publicly pledge to keep out of politics.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2022

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