Pakistan Reader# 135, 29 September 2020
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Updated on 10 October 2020
Over the recent weeks, Pakistan has witnessed several political developments that have gone on to set the stage for a confrontation between the government and opposition with the establishment caught in the middle. From the All Parties Conference (APC), the emergence of a new opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the arrests and indictments of opposition leaders to the never-ending verbal attack from both sides, the combination of these events has created a politically fraught environment, further fracturing of Pakistan's polity and are likely to open the door to even more unrest and political instability.
Nawaz Sharif breaks his silence
The political opposition in Pakistan has gone after Prime Minister Imran Khan and his benefactor, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, with all guns blazing. While addressing the APC hosted by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Nawaz said that the opposition's struggle was not against Imran Khan but those who brought him into power through the 2018 elections.
He went on to unequivocally indicted General Bajwa and the former Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG-ISI) for blatantly meddling in political affairs. Specifically, during his tenure when they made attempts to topple his government through orchestrated street protests and failing that, went on to influence the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to disqualify him from holding the high office. He called them out for subsequently installing Imran Khan as their puppet prime minister, after rigging the 2018 election in his favour.
Further, he went on to state, "Pakistan has been constantly deprived of a democratic system [...] When the vote is dishonoured, the entire democratic system becomes meaningless. When it is decided before the election process as to who will win and who will lose, then it can be guessed how the public is betrayed and how the public's mandate is stolen," adding, "This conference should bring forth a concrete plan of action for saving democracy, a concrete policy should be made for solving the problem of 'a parallel state'. ("Struggle not against Imran Khan but those who brought him into power: Nawaz Sharif," Dawn, 24 September 2020)
Nawaz Sharif also fired the second-round while addressing the PML-N Central Executive Committee (CEC) where he stated that if the nation stays together "the change may take place within weeks." Similar to his APC speech Nawaz was critical of the role of the army in politics and added, "I refuse to live in my own country like a slave, and I will make sure that I live with dignity and pride of a free Pakistani because I have decided to stand up." (Zulqernain Tahir, "Nawaz promises change in weeks," Dawn, 1 October 2020)
He then went on to fire the third-round while addressing a meeting of the PML-N's Central Working Committee (CWC) where lashed out at the PTI government for failing to control inflation and poverty, saying once again that his party's struggle was not against Prime Minister Imran Khan but "those who stole the election" and allegedly brought him into power. Nawaz Sharif then upped the ante by barring his party leaders and cadres from meeting with members of the armed forces. ("'Is this what state of Madina looks like?': Nawaz lashes out at PTI government," Dawn, 2 October 2020)
Enter the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)
The opposition in an attempt to challenge the ruling PTI government and its military backers took a stand with the creation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). At the All Parties Conference, hosted by the Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari were joined by nationalist Pashtun and Baloch parties, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), and the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) of the cleric-politician Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, an alliance named Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was formed. A 26-point resolution was adopted by the APC in which they vowed to oust, the "selected prime minister" through a mass movement, and called for an end to the establishment's role in politics. (Zahid Hussain, "The rise of the opposition?," Dawn, 4 October 2020)
Maulana Rehman has been appointed as the first president of the opposition's PDM after his unanimous nomination by the heads of all the constituent parties. Further, many are said to have agreed to his leadership for the PDM in the first phase as he had already led a long march, dubbed as Azadi March, against the present PTI government last year. (Amir Wasim, "Fazl to head anti-govt alliance in first phase," Dawn, 4 October 2020)
The alliance will now lead and guide nationwide protests against the government in a disciplined and integrated manner. It has planned to launch the first phase, beginning October, with rallies held in Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Punjab. The second phase, starting December, with huge country-wide demonstrations. The third phase, to begin in January with a long-march, will move towards Islamabad. As stated by Maulana Rehman, "To oust the selected government, the joint opposition will use all tactics, including a vote of no confidence and resignations from the parliament." ("Pakistan Democratic Movement to begin struggle against govt from October," Dawn, 20 September 2020)
This came after the many attempts over the last two years to bring the fractious opposition groups together on a common anti-government agenda, but they had so far failed until now. Further, the anti-establishment agenda of the alliance reflects a marked shift in the opposition's stance, with the focus now on the security Establishment. They see the Establishment as the real power behind the PTI government.
The formation of the PDM has, once again, brought bitter rivals PML-N and PPP together. Although it reflects a shift in Pakistani politics which has probably been the result of circumstance, jointly, they have already made things more difficult for the PTI government, which is struggling to come to grips with a dire economic situation.
However, Imran Khan stands strong
Imran Khan has put on a brave face. So far. He is also trying to get the Establishment on his side, and is moving the PTI closer to it. At least at the rhetoric level. He is also trying to create a narrative that Nawaz Sharif's politics is under the influence of India.
Consider the following.
Imran Khan said the opposition wanted to create a rift between the government and armed forces. He later went on to say that Nawaz was playing a risky game by criticizing the army stating, "this is a dangerous game Nawaz is playing; Altaf Hussain played the same game, and I am 100 per cent sure that India is helping Nawaz," added that he was creating a "huge Fitna (mischief)" by attacking the Army.
Imran Khan has also said that the current civil-military relationship is unmatched unlike during Nawaz's time where relations remained bitter because he always wanted "to control the army". Further, he said in a democratic system a person's moral authority is what matter, adding, "Nawaz Sharif was never a democratic man," which is why the army did not support him. ("Nawaz maligning Army at India's behest: PM," Dawn, 10 September 2020) He went on to warns of arrests if opposition breaks the law during the protest and ordered for Nawaz's return at the earliest.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned the broadcast of speeches, interviews and public addresses by absconders and proclaimed offenders. PEMRA issued a notification that upon investigating a complaint, it found that news channels were violating the earlier directive of the Authority which had been issued on 27 May 2019 on proclaimed offenders. Further, the notice reiterated that news channels that they were bound to comply with PEMRA laws as well as parameters which have been laid down over the years. ("Broadcasting Nawaz's speeches banned: Broadcasting convicts' statement illegal, says Pemra," The News International, 2 October 2020)
However, Imran Khan and the establishment would have to tread carefully. To protect him the junta would have to expose itself further, and in the process become more vulnerable.
Just the beginning of confrontational politics, but why now? Can the Opposition sustain the PDM?
This is not the first time that opposition parties have decided to launch anti-government protests. In May 2019, the heads of both the PPP and PLM-N made a similar declaration stating the growing inflation as a key reason for their agitation against the government. However, the two did not act on their announcement and rather decided to bring a motion to remove the ruling party's chairman in the upper house of Parliament. This attempt failed, following which the PML-N accused the PPP of colluding with the security establishment to gain political favour.
Later in October 2019, the PPP and the PML-N, in coordination with the JUI-F, once again announced they would mobilize the public against the government. That round of agitation was framed around a sit-in the capital, supposed to last until Imran Khan tendered his resignation. However, at the start of the agitation, the PPP and the PML-N's reluctance to take further action became prominent, leaving the JUI-F's leadership and workers alone in the capital. Then in February 2020, the PPP and the PML-N yet again announced a phase of anti-government protests. Leading up to July 2020 when they planned for another movement to topple the government. (Umair Jamal, "Why Can't Pakistan's Opposition Parties Remove the Khan Government?," The Diplomat, 24 July 2020)
After numerous attempts the opposition seems to have consolidated itself far better this time, with the return of Nawaz to an active political role and his recent speeches getting live airtime on the otherwise tightly controlled media, suggest that something is stirring. Nawaz has laid down his party's policy in clear terms. The focus is now on the security establishment. If the PDM can hold the trifecta of its street and parliamentary power with the PML-N, JUI, nationalist groupings together, it could challenge the Imran-Bajwa nexus. Further, if they resigning in masses from the assemblies, they can create a crisis of moral legitimacy, if not a constitutional one. Further, both, the PPP and PML-N leadership, will have to rise above the constant 'behind-the-back' compromise with the military as was demonstrated bypassing of the anti-money laundering Bills that have a direct bearing on Pakistan and its position on the FATF list.
However, given the lessons of the past alliances, PDM may not be able to bring down the government or weaken the establishment's hold on politics completely. A major challenge for the opposition alliance remains in maintaining its unity. A question that is yet to be answered. However, the alliance seems quite confident that it will be able to stir enough public pressure to force the establishment to pull back from supporting the PTI government.
But why has the opposition reacted strongly now, especially the PML-N? Is this in retaliation to the stepped-up accountability process by the government and other institution? Or it a repeat of the pass where a government unwilling to engage with the opposition, results in the creation of alliances by a desperate opposition pledging to upend the government against a backdrop of economic gloom and governance deficits, a controversial accountability process and a deeply polarised nation. Another reason why the opposition could be consolidating their power now is in view of strategically making their hit, before the critical Senate elections, which would give the PTI control of the upper house of parliament. (Maleeha Lodhi, "Politics of confrontation," Dawn, 5 October 2020)
As of now, it is hard to assess what the payoff for the Pakistani people is. The movement seems to be highly involved rhetoric than action for throughout history political parties are usually united when it comes to sloganeering and rhetoric but when it comes to implementing those things that they have announced, individual interests of the parties dominate their agenda. This is what the country is witnessing now, with the abuse of institutions by two political leaders.
About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a research assistant at 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.