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No Fireworks at PDM’s Lahore Rally

Opposition messaging betrays lack of consensus, clear roadmap
The first phase of PDM’s drive to unseat Prime Minister Khan concludes without a clear way forward

Article by: Khalid Wasim

The opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) might have put on a convincing show of power in their drive for the ouster of the incumbent coalition government led by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) but it again failed to articulate a clear cut strategy to mount the kind of pressure needed to trigger early elections or force in-house change.

In fact, the 11-party coalition’s mildly massive public meeting at the Minar-e-Pakistan was widely expected to crystallize the opposition intended pathway to change. Instead, it turned out to be a venue for regurgitation of what has already been said by PDM leaders at their previous five public meetings.

There is no denying that the number of people at the hometown of the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) was impressive but it was nowhere near enough to send chills down anybody’s spine, whether the government or its patrons.

However, it will be enough to keep the opposition movement going, at least for now. Whether it can unnerve the government remains to be seen. For now, the government appears to be holding and holding out strong.

The plan of a long march on Islamabad by the end of January or early February as announced by Maulana Fazlur Rahman clearly indicates that the PDM leadership is seeking more time to bring its house in order before giving a final call to the masses.

In addition, it also indicated that the opposition might not have been getting the kind of assurances from the powers there be that could encourage it enough to put in their resignation before the Senate polls. Premature resignations may just allow the PTI and its allies to hog almost half of the seats that are going to be up for grabs, effectively establishing a majority in the Senate that may last until 2027.

In fact, the impact that was created by the speech of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at PDM’s first public rally in Gujranwala appears to be not only losing esteem but is also becoming purposelessly repetitive since it has not become a shared narrative of the eleven parties that form the combined opposition.

His speech at the Lahore rally clearly was a diluted version as he stayed away from naming any single person for being responsible for his political ordeal since 2017, although his repeated referral to “some generals” for holding the democracy hostage and establishing a proxy rule through the PTI-led government was clearly an expression of his hope of some ethical conduct by personnel within institutions as happened several times in the past.

Notwithstanding his watered down outburst against the PTI-government and its patrons in the establishment, his speech overshadowed other PDM leaders who did not even come close to lines that he crossed.

Following in the footsteps of his father, PML-N’s Vice-President Maryam Nawaz appeared to be more willing to cross the red lines, which are arbitrarily drawn and altered by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, but PPP’s Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari continues to be more circumspect as far as naming and shaming of personnel among Pakistani establishment are concerned.

While Maryam added a former chief justice to the coterie who, she said, rigged the general elections in favor of the PTI by keeping her and her former prime minister father out of the contest, Mr. Bhutto-Zardari again implicated “selectors” and “umpires” instead of naming individuals, clearly indicating the differences among the opposition parties on future pathways to change.

The PPP seems to be willing to keep the channels of dialogue open with the incumbents in powerful institutions as against the PML-N which appears to need more categorical assurances and changes before initiating any dialogue. It is, however, not clear what any such dialogue would achieve considering the fact that the 18th constitutional amendment had effectively closed all doors to the ouster of the government through extra-parliamentary means unless otherwise the dissolution of assemblies is advised by the respective leaders of the house, which does not appear to be possible.

Prime Minister Imran Khan during a conversation with senior journalists from print media in Islamabad on Dec 8 declared that he would go for by-elections in the country if the opposition members resigned from the assemblies. The prime minister also stated that he was ready to hold talks with the opposition on every issue, except the corruption cases against its leadership.

However, many in the ruling PTI believe that the government has already lost the opportunity of politically engaging the opposition parties, and now it is too late for them to make such an offer to the opposition. They believe that making a direct offer to the opposition for talks now would be seen as a retreat on the part of the government and a victory for opposition parties.

And their misgivings were vindicated when hours after the media aired the prime minister’s remarks regarding holding of by-elections in the country and his talks’ offer, the PDM leaders categorically stated they were not ready to hold any dialogue with an “illegitimate government”.

After presiding over a meeting of the heads of the PDM parties in Islamabad, Maulana Fazlur Rehman also announced that all the national and provincial lawmakers belonging to its constituent parties would hand over their resignations individually to their respective party heads by 31 December 2020.

The PDM leadership, however, failed to come up with an agreed plan regarding the use of their most lethal weapon of en masse resignations and its timing because of the forceful opposition to the resignation move by the PPP. Maulana Fazlur Rehman simply announced the PDM’s steering committee would meet the next day “to decide the schedule for further rallies and demonstrations and the date for the long march towards Islamabad”.

The Maulana didn’t take the reporters’ questions and abruptly ended the news conference in less than 10 minutes.

The next day, however, before the steering committee’s meeting, the heads of the PDM parties again gathered at the residence of the Maulana in an effort to sort out differences within the alliance over the resignation issue, but they failed as later Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari announced that any decision regarding the resignations would be taken by the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC).

This announcement was a clear indication that the PPP was not ready to sacrifice its provincial government in Sindh.

And when the steering committee met late at night, it neither announced any date for the long march nor did it come out with any plan of agitation after the conclusion of the first phase of its anti-government campaign with the Lahore public meeting on 13 December.

It was perhaps to avoid possible media grilling over their failure to come up with a clear roadmap that the PDM leaders hurriedly left the venue telling the reporters that the decisions they had made would be announced at the Lahore public meeting.

Reportedly, Asif Zardari who attended the meeting via a video link opposed Nawaz Sharif’s proposal to hand over the resignations to Maulana Fazl for future use and it was on his proposal that finally, other parties agreed on the suggestion that the resignations should be collected by the party heads.

Earlier, Nawaz Sharif had rejected the PPP’s proposal of moving a no-confidence motion against Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and approaching the PML-Q. Mr. Sharif reportedly told the participants that they should make efforts to mobilize the people of Punjab who for the first time in the country’s history had “anti-establishment feelings”.

The PML-N’s supremo also reportedly floated the idea of converting the PDM into an election alliance, at least for the next elections, but other heavyweights did not consider the proposal worth a discussion. The smaller parties in the PDM, however, welcomed Mr. Sharif’s proposal in the hope they might get a chance to reach the Parliament.

The PPP leaders in their private conversations are now openly opposing the idea of resigning from the assemblies, saying that after boycotting the 1985 non-party based general elections in the country, the party has learned a lesson that it should never leave the field open for the opponents. On the other hand, the PML-N and other PDM component parties are of the view that the government will not be able to sustain the setback due to their resignations and come down crumbling.

Some political experts are predicting that there is even a possibility that the PML-N, JUI-F and other nationalist parties can come out of the assemblies even if the PPP does not support the idea, which would mean a division of the PDM. Nobody knows where such a situation would leave the country.

Presently, the opposition alliance continues to huddle together despite all the establishment’s pressure tactics. What it lacks, however, is a more precise enunciation of its agenda, which is required to rally the support of the fence-sitting middle classes.

If the opposition is sincere in its desire to insulate our electoral democracy from extra constitutional influences, as the partners agreed together in their multiparty conference this September, they will have to demonstrate their seriousness by sharing a concrete roadmap to change.

Ambiguous, vaguely revolutionary rhetoric and fuzzy slogans that politicians usually use to rally the masses will cut no ice with a public that has every right to know the magic ingredients of the opposition’s recipe to eliminate the role of establishment and intelligence agencies in politics.

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