Pakistan Reader# 206, 17 September 2021
In September 2020, the opposition in an attempt to challenge the ruling PTI government and the military establishment created the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). At an All-Parties Conference, hosted by the Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, nationalist Pashtun and Baloch parties, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), and others formed an 11-party alliance named Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). With its slogan, ‘Vote ko izzat do’ in Urdu which means ‘respect the sanctity of the vote,’ the alliance held a series of anti-government rallies across the country gathering mass support.
The creation of the PDM came after many attempts over the last two years to bring the fractious opposition groups together on a common anti-government agenda. Additionally, the anti-establishment agenda of the alliance reflected a marked shift in the opposition's stance, with the focus now on the security Establishment. However, the alliance was hit with short success, with underlying tensions and misunderstanding propping up and defeating its purpose. A major break in the alliance was the exit of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Awami National Party, highlight the fact that the PDM is deeply divided and ending the first phase of the movement.
On 10 September, the PDM while announcing the second phase of its anti-government campaign had decided to boycott the joint sitting of parliament and join media workers’ protest outside the Parliament House which took place on 13 September. The alliance announced that it would issue a white paper against the government and would expose what it called “wrongdoings, failures and faulty policies of the government.” Meanwhile, Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced that the alliance has decided to consult with all opposition parties for staging a long march against the government in Islamabad, adding that the executive committee has planned to hold PDM’s grand convention on 26 September in Islamabad where members of legal and journalist fraternity, as well as labourers, farmers and clerks, will be invited.
The opposition: A hit
Anti-government alliances are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. In the past, there have been several such movements, in which the opposition alliances have been deployed against military dictators as well as civilian leaders. However, one main difference with today’s PDM is that it directly confronts a civilian leadership that enjoys military support. Additionally, the PDM has initially brought the bitter rivals PML-N and PPP together, with the new generations of young leaders of Bilawal and Maryam Nawaz coming to the forefront. Additionally, the PDM was able to under its umbrella parties like the JUI-F and other regional parties despite their shrinking electoral support base. Thus, the PDM, in theory, was on the path to success, but it failed to mobiles the theory into practice which is where the problem lies.
The opposition: A Miss
Since its formation of the alliance, the PDM has remained divided over its narrative. The differences over strategy and objectives rendered it toothless even though it had gained massive support from the masses. Among the major challenge for the opposition's alliance has been in maintaining its unity and the deep-rooted mistrust between the parties. This can be seen in the exit and dilemma that the PPP, who played a key role in setting up the opposition alliance, the dispute over the Senate elections and call for mass resignations. Additionally, not only was there a division in the opposition, several parties like the PML-N also face the challenge of being divided within its own house, thus proving to be a challenge for the alliance as a whole. Meanwhile, the anti-establishment narrative is another factor that would pose as a challenge for the alliance. This said a divided opposition would not have any impact. Thus, PDM 2.0 would most likely continue to be toothless.
The importance of opposition in a democracy
The growing gulf in an already divided opposition will not bode well for Pakistan’s already weak democracy. Among the many factors required for a democracy to function, a united and functioning opposition is key. A weak opposition is one of the reasons for the poor state of democracy, especially in the South Asia regions. It is only when the opposition puts pressure on the government to perform better, democracy functions better. Thus, for the PDM to succeed in its agenda it needs to unite both inside and outside parliament.
“The return of confrontational politics,” Pakistan Reader, 29 September 2020
“Tensions within the Pakistan Democratic Movement,” Pakistan Reader, 26 February 2021
Syed Irfan Raza, “PDM to boycott joint parliament session on Sept 13,” Dawn, 11 September 2021
Zahid Hussain, “Can the PDM survive?,” Dawn, 24 March 2021
“Opposition rivalry,” Dawn, 11 September 2021
“Opposition parties form alliance to oust govt,” Dawn, 21 September 2020
“Opposition unity,” Dawn, 3 January 2021
Michael Kugelman, “Pakistan’s Anti-Government Movement May Hit the Brick Wall of the Security State,” Foreign Policy, 27 October 2020
Zahid Hussain, “The Rise of the Opposition?,” Dawn, 4 October 2020
Mazhar Abbas, “Why opposition is weak?,” The News International, 16 September 2020
“Split in the PDM?,” The News International, 18 March 2021