THE recent setback faced by the opposition in the Senate served as a telling reminder of its weakness even as it gears up to challenge the PTI government by its ‘long marches’ and PML-N and PPP leaders renew their willingness to cooperate with one another. The combined opposition has a majority, albeit thin, in the upper house of parliament. Despite this and its vociferous opposition to the State Bank autonomy bill it failed to block this in the Senate. To be sure the bill was adopted by a majority of only one with the Senate chairman casting the deciding vote. Even so the defeat suffered by the opposition showed it had mounted a half-hearted effort as eight independent senators, and the leader of the opposition in the Senate, never showed up. This embarrassment urged Yousuf Raza Gilani to offer to resign. Predictably, this wasn’t accepted by the PPP leader while speculation mounted of collusion between the PPP and the establishment.
This wasn’t the first time the opposition faced defeat on key legislation in the Senate. The episode underlined that a motley opposition remains deeply divided. Even at moments it defines as important it is unable to act together or effectively. Indeed, after such setbacks, mutual recriminations between the two largest opposition parties reinforces the lack of unity among them. The Senate defeat also sowed discord within the PPP with members calling for action against the group of independent members who sit on opposition benches and voted for the bill but had earlier helped Gilani’s election as opposition leader. More importantly, it undercut the claim and perhaps belief of opposition leaders that they can muster the numbers for a successful vote of no-confidence against the government to bring about an in-house change.
After the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) split last year with the exit of the PPP and ANP over disagreements on strategy, the opposition appeared rudderless and in disarray for months on end. It struggled to recover while the two major opposition parties — electoral rivals in any case — spent much energy in criticising each other rather than the government in television talk shows. Efforts to unify the opposition came to naught. When both opposition groups saw an opportunity to mount greater pressure on the government, due to public discontent with soaring inflation and energy shortages, PDM and PPP announced separate protest marches on the capital. PDM announced a long march aimed at dislodging the government for March 23, while PPP declared it would start its protest march against worsening economic conditions on Feb 27. Whether the recent luncheon meeting hosted by PML-N leader Shehbaz Sharif and attended by PPP leaders Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Asif Zardari urges their two parties towards a joint strategy remains to be seen.
Apart from opposition parties acting at odds with each other both PPP and PML-N have their own set of challenges to address. The PPP government in Sindh has been engaged in fending off opposition to its local government law from both the MQM and Jamaat-i-Islami. It became embroiled in a confrontation with MQM who accused the Sindh government of taking away key administrative and financial powers from local bodies representatives. The Supreme Court judgement then dealt a blow by restraining the provincial government from whittling down the power of the elected local government in certain areas. Dealing with these challenges has obviously consumed — and divided — the attention of its leaders and affected its effectiveness as opposition at the centre.
An effective opposition will need to resolve its internal problems and offer real policy alternatives.
The PML-N’s predicament is different. It has yet to resolve the issue of the party’s two divergent strains and narratives — one arguing for a conciliatory stance towards the establishment while the other a combative approach. While party ‘electables’ prefer an accommodating stance represented by Shehbaz Sharif many of its voters respond to the hawkish one articulated by Maryam Nawaz, who has sought to give the party a populist aura. If confusion persists on this count, it would be costly for a party otherwise skillful in constituency politics. Other than reconciling this ‘divide within’ the party leadership also has to formally name their prime ministerial candidate at some point with elections just a year away. These unresolved issues have an important bearing on party cohesiveness and effectiveness. Factionalism has already exacted a political price by contributing to the fact that in several by-elections PML-N candidates have won by smaller majorities with rivals polling more votes than previously. This can be consequential in general elections.
The opposition also needs to craft and articulate policy alternatives to show how it has better answers to Pakistan’s challenges. Opposition parties have been taking the government to task on a broad range of policy fronts. That of course is what oppositions do everywhere. But they also need to come up with policy ideas and explain their own plans for the future rather than just engage in negative campaigning. PDM and PPP have thus far not done this. Claiming they are more ‘fit to govern’ should oblige them to show why that is the case.
On some issues the opposition should demonstrate a sense of responsibility to signal that they can rise above partisan politics to act in the national interest. The country’s fragile economic situation and the urgent need for an IMF programme is one of them. Almost all opposition parties stridently opposed the IMF deal when its leaders know that without that Pakistan would face a crisis of financial solvency. Its terms are tough but both the PPP and PML-N governments were also compelled to implement Fund programmes in the past with equally difficult conditionalities. Also, opposition parties never presented a credible alternative to the IMF arrangement. Interestingly, a recent Pulse opinion survey found that just over half of respondents did not agree with the opposition view that the economy is being handed over to the Fund.
While the government is under economic and political pressure with growing public disenchantment with its poor governance that is no reason for the opposition to ignore its own problems. For the opposition to raise its game and be effective it needs to resolve its internal dilemmas, offer real alternatives to the policies they oppose and unite for shared objectives. Otherwise, all the noise opposition parties make will be just sound and fury signifying little.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2022