Pakistan Reader# 151, 9 February 2021
Unlike the PPP, the stakes for the PML-N are not as high, for the party’s top leadership is either facing disqualification or are in jail on accountability charges, thus they have not much to lose.Abigail Miriam Fernandez
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) four months since its creation has achieved the impossible but underlying tensions and misunderstanding has defeated its purpose. Over the last four months, Pakistan witnessed a series of “power show” rallies across the country gathering mass support, however, on the other hand, fissures between the alliance have rendered it toothless, leaving one to think if the alliance will succeed in achieving its goal. So, what happened? where did the divide emerge from? And what will the fate of PDM be in the coming months?
PDM demands PTI govt quit by January 31 or face the long march
In early December of 2020, the alliance demanded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led government quit by 31 January or face an intensified opposition movement, including a long march to Islamabad. PDM president Maulana Fazlur Rehman made the demand saying, “Today, we want to make clear to the government that it should resign by January 31” while speaking to the media in Lahore alongside Pakistan Muslim League (N) Vice President Maryam Nawaz, Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and other opposition leaders. Rehman went on to state that lawmakers from the alliance in the national and provincial assemblies will hand in their resignations to their party leaders by 31 December. (“PDM demands PTI govt quit by January 31 or face long march,” Dawn, 14 December 2020)
The PDM then held its much-hyped power show in Lahore’s Minar-i-Pakistan, the sixth rally which the alliance termed as a “historic and decisive” one. Similar to the other rallies but with more assertion, Maulana Fazlur Rehman while addressing the rally asked the establishment to move aside from the way of the masses or else there could be chaos in the country when the state institutions would be pitched against people. PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif while addressing the crowd via video link asserted that his narrative is the narrative of the Constitution. Resonating the same Bilawal said that the ‘selectors’ too would have to concede to the verdict of the masses. (“PDM rules out talks, declares it’s time for long march,” Dawn, 14 December 2020) However, despite the assertive statements and illusion of unity, it was after this rally when the fissure in the alliance emerged to the surface.
After the Lahore rally, it becomes evident that the PPP was not yet ready to participate in a long march and resigning from the provincial assembly as planned by the PDM. But why the sudden change of heart with the PPP? One of the key reasons is that losing control of its heartland, Sindh is certainly not an option for a party that has very little influence in other regions. Thus, the PPP depends on the power it holds in Sindh rather than outside. (Umair Jamal, “It’s Game Over for Pakistan’s Opposition Alliance,” The Diplomat, 8 January 2021)
Another factor for PPP’s opposition to resign from the assemblies and have a long march to Islamabad is that the Sindh government is reliant on the security agencies to maintain law and order in Karachi, which is politically dominated by the PTI and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Thus, the Sindh government has no choice but to work with the federal government for the city’s development.
Further, the PPP has at many instances stated that change should only come through constitutional means and that resorting to any extra-constitutional means would derail the democratic process in the country. (Zahid Hussain, “The PDM’s predicament,” Dawn, 27 January 2021)
PML-N’s extreme position
Unlike the PPP, the stakes for the PML-N are not as high, for the party’s top leadership is either facing disqualification or are in jail on accountability charges, thus they have not much to lose. Further, the PML-N especially Nawaz Sharif has taken an extreme position since the creation of the alliance to possibly create the space for his return to power, however, his chances of returning to power far from becoming a reality given the current civil-military leadership, who have been accused of his political demise.
Most significant is the resurfacing of Maryam Nawaz to the forefront of politics. Her charisma and ability to mobilise the public has played a substantial role in the rallies. Being the new face of the party comes at a crucial time with top leadership being absent from the scene proving to be a reliable leader.
A shift in the PDM’s narrative
The PDM initially took on an anti-establishment narrative, which stood out especially because it targeted the ‘selectors.’ These flamboyant speeches by Nawaz Sharif exposed the militarization of the state, society and economy. Thought the anti-establishment sentiment remains, the PDM’s narrative has become a hotchpotch of conflicting aims that address individual grievances more than collective policy. (“PDM’s way forward,” Dawn, 10 January 2021)
The Senate elections: To contest or not?
The Senate election which is scheduled for March 2021, has been an issue that has caused friction within the alliance. If the elections take place as scheduled, the PTI will mostly emerge as the largest party in the house, displacing the PML-N from that position. Further, the PTI coalition may either get a majority or ger the opportunity from controlling the Senate after the election.
However, for the PDM and its parties, this would be a significant shift in the power structure. As of now the constituent parties of the PDM decisively control the current Senate but would sadly be reduced to a minority, thus benefiting the PTI substantially. Unfortunately, the PDM remains split on this matter. (Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, “A risky plan,” Dawn, 13 December 2020)
Govt's stands remain the same
The PTI government has continued to counter the opposition’s “anti-state narrative” with full force at every forum and expose the corruption cases being faced by the opposition members. More recently, the government called for talks with the PDM, however, the latter backed out. The decision to drop the talks came after the PML-N held its party meeting in the Parliament House. Further, the PPP said they did not meet with the government team because the PML-N was busy with its party meeting. (Syed Irfan Raza, “Opposition backs out from talks with govt,” Dawn, 26 January 2021)
The much-awaited long march, will it see the light of day?
That the formation of the PDM has no doubt, brought bitter rivals PML-N and PPP together, depicting the unpredictability and dynamic nature of Pakistani politics. The PDM may have also been the creation of mere political desperation forcing political groups to join hands, however, it does pose a challenge to the PTI government. However, the trust deficit between the political adversaries remains too wide to tell if cooperation on issues of common interest and national importance is possible. Unity the very commendable characteristic of the alliance is being questioned, rendering the movement toothless. How the PDM takes forward its agenda post-January 2021 remains to be seen. Thus, it’s not yet game over.
About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a research assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As a part of her research focus at "Pakistan Reader", she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements. She is also a Teaching Assistant to the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan.