Situationer: Outgoing coalition partners ‘taken aback’ by power protests

Published August 29, 2023
Traders shout slogans while holding a banner during a protest in Karachi on August 28 against the surge in petrol and electricity prices. — AFP
Traders shout slogans while holding a banner during a protest in Karachi on August 28 against the surge in petrol and electricity prices. — AFP

Mainstream political parties, especially those who were part of the previous PML-N led ruling coalition, are in a fix and have been unable to come out with a clear stance on the issue of ongoing countrywide protests over the inflated power bills.

The failure of these parties to join the agitation has left the field open for religio-political forces, like the Jamaat-i-Islami, to cash in, with JI emir Sirajul Haq giving a call for the countrywide strike on Sept 1 over the excessive bills.

Seeing these protests escalating by the day, the PML-N and PPP have finally come out with a response; the former holding the previous PTI government responsible for the current situation, and the latter planning to give a call to its workers to join the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) has threatened to join the protests, but there has been complete silence from the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, the other major partner in the previous ruling coalition.

PML-N continues to blame ghosts of the past; PPP fears being ‘disconnected’ from masses if they don’t join agitation

No political leaders belonging to any of the four major parties agreed to speak to Dawn on the record over the issue, perhaps due to the absence of any guidance from their respective leaderships.

However, PPP Secretary General Farhatullah Babar said that during the PPP’s recently-held Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting in Karachi, the leadership had thoroughly reviewed the prevailing economic situation, and Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had sought proposals to find long-term solutions.

He expressed the hope that the party would come up with a clear policy and strategy after another meeting, to be held in Lahore next month.

‘Cannot afford to stay away’

But despite the lack of a clear stance from the party leadership, a local PPP leader organised a small protest demonstration in Rawalpindi on Monday, where a few dozen activists carrying PPP flags burnt tyres and electricity bills.

Interestingly, while PML-N leaders have been putting the blame for the entire mess on the PTI government, PPP leaders point the finger at both, their erstwhile ally and Imran Khan’s party.

“It was because of infighting within the PML-N that the former coalition government failed to hold timely negotiations with the IMF which aggravated the economic mess that had been left by the PTI,” said a PPP leader, who was also a part of the cabinet under former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif.

The PPP, he claimed, tried to pursue the PML-N to approach the IMF immediately, but the party delayed the process as it waited for Ishaq Dar to return to the country to replace Miftah Ismail.

When asked how the PPP now planned to present itself before the agitating masses, seeing as they were being viewed as complicit in the actions of the previous government that brought the country to this point, the PPP leader said they would try to clarify their position, but admitted that they could not afford to stay away from the public protests for a long time, as it would send the wrong message.

The leader claimed that the party would soon give a formal call to workers to join the protests, adding that they would definitely participate to show “solidarity” with the masses.

Responding to a question, the PPP leader said the caretakers neither had the mandate nor the capability to resolve the issues being faced by the nation. The only solution, the leader said, was elections without any delay, as only an elected government with a public mandate could steer the nation out of the crises.

PML-N blames ‘ghosts of the past’

Meanwhile, PML-N leader Khurram Dastgir alleged in a statement that the people who had former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ousted in 2017 were mainly responsible for the present power price-hike.

The former power minister claimed that power tariffs were on the rise due to the “incapability” of former prime minister Imran Khan.

He alleged that the Pakistan government’s control over the currency had, for all practical purposes, ended due to the “anti-poor and anti-development” agreement concluded by Mr Khan with the IMF.

He said the coalition government had succeeded in reducing the circular debt by Rs157 billion and brought it down to Rs2,310bn from Rs2,467b, adding that the party had a “brilliant record” of bringing the country out of the energy crisis after getting the government in 2013.

Short-term solutions

Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, when contacted, said it was unfortunate that the mainstream parties were not there to console the angry people in their hour of need. He said the mainstream parties seemed taken aback by the strong public reaction and could not immediately react to it as they were not expecting it.

Though Mr Mehboob said there seemed to be no well-thought-out plan or strategy from any political party to deal with the situation, he predicted that these parties would soon be out to back the demands of the masses if the caretakers failed to control the situation.

He blamed all the political parties for the energy crisis, saying they had failed to hold any parliamentary debate on the issue.

He was of the view that the parties’ approach of finding short-term solutions was the main reason behind the present situation.

Responding to a question regarding the PPP’s announcement to join the protests, Mr Mehboob said it was obvious as the PPP would make every effort to absolve itself from all kinds of responsibility. The PPP, he said, would want to stay in the political field and would not like to see it only a political battle between the PML-N and the PTI.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2023

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