POLITICS is once again on the upsurge in Pakistan. Both the ruling PTI and the opposition seem to have kicked off premature election campaigns. The largest opposition alliance, the PDM, is set to launch its long march to Islamabad on March 23, while the PPP has already embarked on its own ‘Awami March’ which, after starting from Karachi on Feb 27 and having travelled through Sindh, is now moving through Punjab towards Islamabad. The PTI vice chairman and other senior leaders of the party are leading yet another march for the ‘rights of Sindh’ which started from the Sindh-Punjab border and is expected to terminate in Karachi after criss-crossing through Sindh.
Along with these activities on the road, the PDM and PPP have launched a coordinated campaign to muster support for a no-confidence motion against the prime minister in the National Assembly and the PTI chief minister in the provincial assembly of Punjab. The coalition partners whose support is critical to sustain the PTI-led governments at the centre and in Punjab are continuously being approached by the opposition leaders to win their support for the no-confidence moves.
PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif crossed the proverbial red line to go to the residence of arch rivals, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi after some 14 years, in a bid to wean them away from the PTI. Similar meetings are continuing at a brisk pace among almost all political parties represented in the assemblies. It is a measure of political desperation on both sides that while the Sharifs are trying to make up with the Chaudhries of Gujrat, Imran Khan reached out to estranged party colleague Jahangir Khan Tareen and offered various ‘incentives’ to other members of the JKT group of national and provincial legislators in order to keep them in good humour and not let them slip to the other side in a possible vote on the planned no-confidence motions. Another desperate measure on the part of the prime minister was the unexpected announcement of further subsidy on petrol and electricity prices — a move which flies in the face of rising international prices and that may jeopardise the agreement reached with the IMF after great difficulty.
Political activities have somewhat intensified recently but the opposition had been making hectic efforts to remove the PTI government especially since the formation of the PDM in 2020. Subsequently, a series of public rallies in large and small cities were organised to mobilise the public against the government. The opposition parties, with the exception of the PPP, had also contemplated resigning from the assemblies under the misplaced understanding that such a move would stall the Senate election of 2021 and would create a constitutional deadlock leading possibly to the end of the government.
Sadly, Pakistani political parties do not have a tradition of forming shadow cabinets.
All these political activities are quite normal in any democratic society. A no-confidence motion does bring political uncertainty and instability to a society like ours and seriously affects the business and investment climate — thus the general economy of the country. But it is still considered a legitimate activity in a parliamentary form of government. It is a peculiar feature of the parliamentary system that a government may lose its right to rule after the opposition proves that a simple majority in the House is no longer supporting the government.
This proof of no-confidence leads to the replacement of the government by another one which commands the majority in the House. Because of the relative ease and swiftness with which the opposition can come to power in a parliamentary system, the opposition in parliament is termed a ‘government in waiting’.
The status of a ‘government in waiting’ places huge responsibility on the shoulders of the opposition. Opposition parties are not only meant to engineer machinations to replace the government, they must also stay in a permanent state of preparedness to act as the government at short notice. This is precisely the reason why most countries with a parliamentary system have a shadow cabinet in the opposition in place.
Each shadow minister needs to be fully conversant with government policy and also ready to share the ‘shadow policy’ relating to his or her portfolio and to put that policy into execution if and when the opposition comes to power. Sadly, Pakistani political parties do not have a tradition of forming shadow cabinets or even nominating sectoral spokespersons to engage in policy discourse with the media, experts and the public at large in specific terms.
Sadly again, while the opposition has planned and executed a number of activities relating to politics in the past 43 months of PTI rule, hardly any serious endeavour relating to the preparation of an orderly transition to better governance has been witnessed. Pakistan is confronted with a number of serious challenges and any responsible opposition should be prepared with policy responses to such challenges — for example how the government in waiting proposes to attend to the twin deficits that our economy almost perennially faces and that have exacerbated due to international inflation.
Equally important are the challenges of foreign policy especially relating to our relations with India and Afghanistan and the need to maintain a balance between China and the US and a similar balance between the Saudi-led GCC countries and those led by Iran. A renewed wave of insurgency in Balochistan and the border areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; our somewhat troubled relationship with the FATF and IMF; haemorrhaging state-owned enterprises; disappeared persons; lack of effective local governments; the increasing youth bulge and rising unemployment; and the high population growth rate are key issues which require serious and well-thought-out policy responses. Unfortunately, while the government is increasingly moving towards more politics and less governance, the opposition seems to be totally oblivious to its responsibilities as a ‘government in waiting’.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2022