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Opposition Has No One But Itself To Blame For Political Disarray

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The opposition needs to learn to negotiate, compromise and bargain effectively. It will also have to put aside its short term political differences in the interest of long term gains, writes Anish Mishra.

Over the last month, Pakistan had witnessed the drama of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) chief  Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s anti-government Azadi March supported by the two largest opposition parties in Pakistan: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) demanding the resignation of PM Imran Khan. The climax of this public spectacle unfolded when former PM Nawaz Sharif was released on bail for medical treatment in London.

The opposition deems the election or rather ‘selection’ of Prime Minister Imran Khan as an attack on Pakistan’s hard-earned democracy. If one carefully and impartially examines the actions of the PPP and PML-N from the present day back to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister in 2017, it is apparent that the opposition in Pakistan has no one but itself to blame for its current state of affairs.

At this juncture, it is essential to invoke the charter of democracy that was signed by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto in London on 14 May 2006 whereby the both leaders took an oath to fight for democracy in Pakistan. They agreed to put aside their past bitterness and work together to overthrow the rule of then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf.

This shows that if the civilian political elite in Pakistan were united, they could harness the power to subdue the establishment. Nawaz Sharif has always remained committed to the charter of democracy regardless of whether he was in opposition, government or in jail. However, the same cannot be said about Asif Ali Zardari.

In a paper titled, “The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns” published in the American Sociological Review (1989), John Higley and Michael G Burton wrote that “Stable democratic regimes depend heavily on the “consensual unity” of national elites. So long as elites remain disunified, political regimes are unstable, a condition which makes democratic transitions and democratic breakdowns merely temporary oscillations in the forms unstable regimes take.”

This can be applied to the case of Pakistan; if the PPP and PML-N do not deviate from the charter of democracy and remain committed towards the cause of preserving democracy then there will never be a backsliding of democracy in Pakistan as civilian political elite unity is essential for preventing a reverse democratic transition in Pakistan.

Following the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, the PPP maintained a strong anti-PML-N stance until the outcome of the 2018 general election. This is evident from Asif Ali Zardari’s participation in the anti-PML-N rally organised by Dr. Tahir ul Qadri on 17 January 2018 where he shared the same platform with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) demanding the dissolution of the then PML-N government which was in power prior to the July 2018 general election.

In his speech at Dr Qadri’s rally, Zardari condemned Nawaz Sharif’s remarks shortly before the rally, comparing himself with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and how although Mujibur Rahman had once been a member of the All India Muslim League the policies of the Pakistan military had turned him into a rebel.

Zardari said in Urdu that “Mujibur Rahman was the one who tore Pakistan apart, until today our decedents still cannot forgive him; and Nawaz Sharif says that he wants to be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Is this an honorable aspiration? To betray your land, split up Pakistan and then say “I want to be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman” What has happened to you (Nawaz Sharif)? Even after whatever has happened to the PPP, We have never asked to break up Pakistan because we want Pakistan. This Mujibur Rahman of Jati Umra (Nawaz Sharif) is a threat to Pakistan.” Asif Ali Zardari probably now regrets his participation in Dr Tahir ul Qadri’s rally and the remarks that he had made.

In May 2019, Bilawal Bhutto said, “we have all seen what happened with Bangladesh, with East Pakistan……if we will label our own citizens, our own children, our own politicians as traitors when they talk about rights, democracy, rule of law, then we will set ourselves on a very dangerous path,” Bilawal Bhutto made a similar statement in September 2019 when there were plans by the federal government to take over administrative control of Karachi.

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In the words of Bilawal Bhutto, “You (Imran Khan) should consider why Bangladesh was created. If you keep acting with similar cruelty and parties like the PPP do not stand in the way than tomorrow Sindhudesh, Seraikidesh and Pashtundesh can also come into being.”

This exposes the double standards of the PPP. On one hand, Asif Ali Zardari ridicules Nawaz Sharif for his “Mujibur Rahman” remark, and on the other hand his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari makes references to Bangladesh and expresses sympathy with sub-ethnic separatist nationalist movements in Pakistan.

Bilawal Bhutto’s intentions are clear. He does not actually support such movements, but these remarks were meant to irritate the Pakistani military establishment and Imran Khan’s government.

Now, one may wonder; why is there such a drastic shift in the stance of Asif Ali Zardari since January 2018? The PPP currently enjoys little support outside its traditional stronghold in the interior regions of the Sindh province. Therefore, it knows very well that it will never be able to pick up enough seats in Punjab or in other provinces to be able to form the government in the National Assembly.

Given the historical role of the PPP in Pakistan politics, the party is unwilling to confine itself to the Sindh province and operate as a regional party. Therefore, with the benefit of hindsight it can be inferred that Asif Ali Zardari harboured the intention to enter into a coalition with the PTI to form the government thus explaining the anti-PML-N stance of the PPP prior to the 2018 general election. Zardari had rightly foreseen that the 2018 general election would produce a hung parliament, but the PTI performed better than his calculations and did not need the support of the PPP to form the government.

In the second half of 2019, it can be seen that relations between the PPP and PML-N have become cozy. At the same time, there are increasing signs of unity among the major opposition parties such as the frequent all-party (opposition) conferences facilitated by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the Azadi March in Islamabad. If one analyses the composition of the National Assembly of Pakistan, then one would understand that it is actually not too difficult to topple Imran Khan’s government.

The National Assembly of Pakistan has a total strength of 342 seats. This includes 272 directly elected constituency seats plus 60 reserved seats for women and 10 non-Muslim minority seats. The 70 reserved seats are allotted to political parties on a proportional representation system based on the number of constituency seats won during the general election.

In order to form the government one needs to have the support of at least 172 MNAs. The PTI has a total of only 156 seats way below the magic number of 172 required to form the government on its own thus it had to form a coalition government with smaller political parties such as; the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) which has 7 seats, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid e Azam (PML-Q); 5 seats, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP); 5 seats, Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA); 3 seats and the Awami Muslim League; 1 seat.

Together with these smaller political parties, the government coalition has a total strength of 177 seats. Further, it has a confidence and supply agreement with 6 other MNAs. This means that Prime Minister Imran Khan currently commands the confidence of 183 MNAs thus instead of protesting in Islamabad and demanding for fresh election to opposition should think of how to convince at least 13 of the MNAs supporting the government to pull the plug on Imran Khan.

 The PML-N has a total of 84 seats in the National Assembly while the PPP has 55 seats. If one includes the MMA with 16 seats, then the seat tally of the three largest opposition party equates to 155 seats matching up to the size of the PTI with 156 seats. If the PML-N, PPP and PML-Q are able to come to terms with each other then there is a possibility of them being able to pull over the coalition partners of Imran Khan.

For the opposition in Pakistan, the key to the National Assembly lies in the Provincial Assembly of Punjab. The Punjab Assembly is composed of 371 seats, 186 seats are required to from the government. The PTI has 181 seats in the Punjab Assembly thus it is unable to form government on its own. Therefore, it is heavily depended on its coalition with the PML-Q which has 10 seats in the Punjab Assembly. Besides the PML-Q, the PTI has no other coalition partners, but it has a confidence and supply agreement with 4 independent legislators. The PML-N has 166 seats in the Punjab Assembly while the PPP has 7 seats. A Deobandi Sunni Islam religious party called the Pakistan Rah-e-Haq affiliated with the right-wing extremist organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) has 1 seat while 2 other seats in the Punjab Assembly remains vacant.

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In an event that the PML-Q pulls the plug, the PTI government in Punjab will immediately fall. This could be possible if the PPP and PML-N are able to enter into a coalition with the PML-Q. For this to happen, PML-Q leader Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, who is the current speaker of the Punjab Assembly, must be guaranteed the CMship of Punjab. Thus, the PML-N could once again form the Punjab government without calling for fresh election if a PML-N, PPP, PML-Q coalition is able to garner the support of independents or engage in some good old horse trading.

If the PTI government in Punjab collapses through Chaudhry Parvez Elahi crossing sides, then the PTI government in the National Assembly will also lose the support of the 5 PML-Q members. In such a scenario, the PPP will have to be generous enough to offer the MQM-P some political concessions in Karachi and probably a couple of ministries in the Sindh government to convince them to withdraw its support of the PTI government in the National Assembly.

Having the PML-Q and MQM-P pull out from the federal government, it will not be too difficult for a united opposition coalition with these two political parties in it to win over a few more MNAs from either the smaller political parties supporting the government or even directly from the PTI itself.

Hence, a united opposition consisting of the PML-N, PPP, MMA, MQM-P, PML-Q and either independents, smaller parties or rebel PTI MNAs can successfully move a motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan and form the government. If Imran Khan wants to save his government, the best decision that he can make at this stage is to remove Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar and offer the position to Chaudhry Parvez Elahi before he receives the keys to Punjab’s Chief Minister’s Office from elsewhere.

This can only happen if the opposition is willing to negotiate, compromise and bargain effectively. The opposition will need to learn how to put aside its short term narrow political differences in the interest of long term gains. If Imran Khan loses his Prime Ministership in such a turn of events, he should take these potential developments in his stride as a feature of the democratic process.

In Pakistani history, not a single elected government has been collapsed in the National Assembly through a no-confidence motion.

There was an unsuccessful attempt by the Pakistan Army headed by Chief of Army Staff General Mirza Aslam Baig and Director- General of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmed to bring down Benazir Bhutto’s government through a motion of no-confidence in November 1989 in favour of its then selected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This conspiracy of the military was codenamed “Operation Midnight Jackal”.

In 2020, Pakistan may witness the first government in its National Assembly to be defeated through a motion of no-confidence. As Pakistan is now moving towards the direction of coalition politics, it may witness many more governments rising and falling on the floor of the National Assembly or even frequent elections due to governments being defeated through motions of no-confidence with no political party being able to form the government.


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