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Opposition disarray, government’s challenges

One month after the July 25, 2018 elections, the process of governments’ formation, cabinet postings, etc, is still playing out. Above this fray, the election for president looms, having exposed the rifts within the opposition Alliance for Free and Fair Elections (AFFE), formed just weeks ago after the controversy surrounding the July 25 polls. That controversy appears to be petering out as a result of a fractured AFFE unable to mount a serious challenge to the outcome of the elections, either inside parliament or on the street. Even the Senate committee headed by Rehman Malik has been left bleating for an independent inquiry into the collapse of the much vaunted Results Transmission System (RTS) on the evening of the polls while the results were being collated.

Unable to agree on a joint candidate for president, the opposition has decided to field two against the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI’s) Dr Arif Alvi. The PPP insists on naming Aitzaz Ahsan despite efforts to persuade the party to pick someone more acceptable to the PML-N. Reports speak of PPP Co-chairperson Asif Zardari throwing a spanner in the works by refusing to withdraw Aitzaz’s name or replace him with someone else. Unkind reports even suggest Asif Zardari is taking a hostile posture towards the PML-N because of ‘pressure’ on him from the powers-that-be who have dangled the sword of accountability over his and sister Faryal Talpur’s heads. Despairing of persuading the PPP despite their best efforts, the rest of the AFFE parties have put up Maulana Fazlur Rehman, perhaps in a belated effort to compensate him for being ousted from his home National Assembly constituency in Dera Ismail Khan. On the basis of the strengths of the two (or three) sides in the president’s electoral college consisting of the houses of parliament and the provincial Assemblies, the Maulana may face ignominy once again (in company with Aitzaz).

The confusion, u-turns and contradictory statements and stances flowing from the PTI regarding cabinet and gubernatorial posts (the latest being the on-again-off-again nomination of Dr Ameer Mohammad Khan Jogezai as Balochistan Governor) indicate the absence of, and the critical need for, parties while in opposition to form shadow cabinets as is done in most mature democracies. The members of such shadow cabinets become or already are experts in the field assigned to them. This obviates delays after elections in forming governments, assigning cabinet portfolios, and getting on with the business of governance, which brooks no delay.

The cabinets formed so far by the PTI at the Centre, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab (the last in process while these lines are being written) seem heavily loaded in favour of members of the Pervez Musharraf regime or its King’s Party, the PML-Q. This indicates a continuity from the time in the early 2000s when Imran Khan was seeking the beneficence of the military dictator to become prime minister with just one seat in the 2002 elections. The more things ‘change’, the more they remain the same (French proverb).

The PTI’s austerity drive and abolishing VIP privileges (such as the latest decision to do away with such privileges at airports) are populist, popular measures that will take the government so far and no further. Then the weight of expectations from a government promising change will kick in. To satisfy these aspirations will require more substance than merely superficial but popular moves.

The PTI government’s gaffes during the first few days in office are piling up. First and foremost came the foreign policy instances of a comedy of errors. Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s congratulatory phone call to PM Imran Khan was read by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi as an invitation to talks, an interpretation roundly scotched by New Delhi. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s similar purpose call to our PM generated a spat on what was and was not said (vis-à-vis terrorists operating on Pakistan’s soil). There is confusion whether PM Imran Khan will take the opportunity to interact with world leaders by attending (and addressing) the UN General Assembly session in September, given that the PM has vowed not to undertake any foreign tours for at least three months. Austerity is good, but the business of advocating the state’s interests on a global stage must take priority, rationally.

The government will have to take note of the sudden incremental rise in street crime in Karachi, Lahore and other cities in the wake of the elections. This phenomenon could be hardened criminals taking advantage of the ‘gap’ between the caretaker governments’ departure and the new administrations kicking in. Or it could be desperate unemployed youth resorting to such means to overcome hunger and deprivation. Of course it could also be a combination of both. While unemployment, hunger and deprivation can only be improved over time, hardened criminals do have to be brought to book. Unfortunately, the increasing ‘militarisation’ of our police forces has rendered them trigger-happy to the point almost of posing an existential threat to innocent citizens caught in the crossfire between the police and criminals in crowded venues. And of course the long standing problem of deaths in police ‘encounters’ (read extra-legal executions) remains unresolved in the absence of any meaningful checks on a police freed from control by Musharraf’s Plato (General Naqvi) since 2002.

Shireen Mazari’s choice as federal Human Rights Minister has surprised most people, not just the human rights advocacy community. One could search far and long for any statement or action by her during her (by now) long career in politics on issues of this nature. It is good however, that one of her first acts after assuming office was to take notice of the mistreatment of a young woman by the staff of a Darul Aman. But don’t hold your breath that the honourable minister will also address the latest attack on a place of worship of our Ahmedi citizens in the Ghaseet Pura area of Faisalabad. No doubt she would prefer to steer clear of this hot potato, based on what the previous PML-N government had to suffer at the hands of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Human rights are indivisible however. The sooner Ms Mazari learns this prickly but essential truth the better. Or the option of some other portfolio awaits.

The diverse constituents of any political party mask the core interests it represents. These core interests can only be understood if a class analysis of the political party in question is conducted. In the case of the three political parties that now constitute what is being dubbed our three-party system, they represent discrete class interests. The PPP has been reduced to the party of the feudal landowners (called Waderas in Sindh, where it now stands virtually confined). The PML-N has never hidden the constituency of traders, businessmen and industrial capitalists whose interests it promotes over all else. The new kid on the block, the PTI, has given voice, agency and power to the rising urban middle class in our society. All three can now be rightly described as right wing. This three-cornered class struggle is likely to determine our foreseeable future in the absence so far of a credible and effective Left alternative that can pitch the interests of the working masses to a wider audience.

Rashid Rehman, "Opposition disarray, government’s challenges," Business Recorder. 2018-08-28.
Keywords: Opposition alliance , Senate committee , National Assembly , Caretaker governments , Human rights , Industrial capitalists , Dr.Ameer Mohammad Khan , Jogezai , PML-N , AFFE , VIP , PPP , PTI