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Flux and uncertainty

The polity is still in the grip of flux and uncertainty despite almost a year since the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government took office. First and foremost of course is its dismal handling of the economy, which clearly seems headed south, with more pain to be inflicted if and when the federal budget is passed. The PTI government, widely believed to have been imposed through a flawed or rigged election (take your pick), seems to be still enjoying the support of the establishment that is believed to be the author of the scheme to bring Imran Khan to power. In return, the government has decided to benefit from the advice and views of COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa by making him a member of the newly-formed National Development Council, although what this Council will contribute to the deliberations, decision making and policies of the government seems still up in the air.

Meanwhile, after a slow and somewhat tortuous process, the opposition has finally decided on June 26, 2019 as the date for its All Parties Conference, much to the delight of convener Maulana Fazlur Rehman. However, this may only prove the beginning of a lengthy process of discussions amongst the opposition parties. The reasons are as follows. The opposition parties’ stakes converge in their common interest in seeing the back of the PTI government. However, that is perhaps where the harmony begins and ends.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is champing at the bit since the 2018 elections (in which he lost his seat) to mount a long march on and shutdown of Islamabad. Both the PPP and PML-N have leaders behind bars but do not seem certain of their strategy. PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur have been arrested in the fake bank accounts case, and an application has been moved by the ruling PTI to the Election Commission of Pakistan to disqualify her. PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif has been sentenced and is ensconced in jail, with persistent reports regarding his poor health and risks to life. If God forbid something were to happen to him in jail, one shudders to contemplate the fallout. After all, as his daughter Maryam Nawaz reminded us the other day in her press conference, Pakistan is not Egypt (despite some similarities in their political history) and Nawaz Sharif is not (the late) Morsi. There are also all sorts of speculations (some perhaps motivated) of a ‘split’ between the policies of Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother and president of the PML-N Shahbaz Sharif.

Whether the opposition is a house divided will only become known after the All Parties Conference. The threat of more arrests of PPP and PML-N leaders, if it transpires, is likely to spur on the opposition to further close ranks. Despite that, it is still not clear whether the combined opposition wants to go for broke (oust the government) or just exert pressure. If the widespread perception (reinforced every day by the PTI’s fulminations) that the latter tactic is intended to ease some of the targeting of the two main parties’ leadership is correct, this is unlikely to incentivise the masses to come out in agitation mode despite their cries of suffering on account of inflation, unemployment, rise in utility tariffs (with more to come in the budget), etc.

What the opposition lacks is a credible programme that offers the people some hope of relief or succour from the tsunami of privations and misery unleashed by the PTI government in its relatively short time in office. Though the lava of mass unrest is bubbling, it may not be triggered to explode onto the surface until and unless the people feel they are risking life and limb for something worthwhile for them, not just a ‘rescue’ act for the beleaguered opposition leadership. This obstacle nevertheless does not rule out spontaneous explosions of mass resistance here and there. If this were to occur in the absence of clear leadership of the movement by the opposition parties, it would likely be anarchic and perhaps even violent. Were the government to attempt to suppress such manifestations by force, they could inadvertently trigger a bigger tsunami of protest with the possibility that the opposition mainstream and the relatively anarchic mass protests may find common cause despite the arguments presented above.

The opposition has a great deal to thank the PTI government for. Its actions and policies have paved the way for the off again on again daggers drawn PPP and PML-N to once again go into ‘cooperation’ overdrive. The pattern of political convergence and divergence between the two is part of the woof and warp of our history. It was precisely to stop the game of the establishment playing off one against the other in the 1990s that persuaded the late Benazir Bhutto (and later Nawaz Sharif) to sign the Charter of Democracy in exile in London in 2006. The fact that her successor, Asif Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif soon returned to the old familiar ways of doing each other down has ended in a ‘termination’ of the two-party ‘system’. It has been replaced by a third party, widely considered a creature of the establishment.

Another reason why some hesitation can be detected in the pronouncements and stance of the opposition parties is the uncertainty of what may follow an ouster of the PTI government. Going by the past, this has usually ended in a praetorian dispensation. Whether such a gambit would succeed in today’s world, and whether it is even part of war gaming is unknown. As some commentators have repeatedly said, in the absence of a Plan B, sticking with Plan A despite the difficulties seems the best course.

The dominance of state institutions inherited from colonialism at the time of independence over the political forces has now reached its apogee. Unless the opposition comes up with a workable plan to roll back the establishment’s real grip on power, they (and we as a result) will continue to be condemned to little more than supplicants at the high table for a seat.

rashed.rahman1@gmail.com

rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

Rashed Rahman, "Flux and uncertainty," Business Recorder. 2019-06-25.
Keywords: Political science , All parties conference , Economic crisis , Election commission , Opposition leadership , PTI government , Imran Khan , General Qamar Javed Bajwa , Nawaz Sharif , Pakistan , PML-N , PPP , APC