The Iftar dinner hosted by the PPP for the opposition parties created quite a stir. The more the PTI leadership tried to “pooh-pooh” it, the more the dinner got the limelight. The more the government tried to portray it as an insignificant development, the more significant it became.
The opposition parties that failed to launch united candidates for the election of the Prime Minister and the President finally were able to break bread together and discuss what future they faced in the days, weeks and months ahead.
The rejection of the bail extension for Nawaz Sharif created the conditions for a hardening of the PML-N’s position towards the current ruling dispensation and a reversal of the Shehbaz Sharif doctrine, i.e. appeasement. Soon after the bail rejection, the PML-N brought out its resistance face by shuffling the party deck, bringing hardliners to the front led by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, giving her a formal party position for the first time. The move was supplemented by the strategic absence of Shehbaz Sharif from the playground. He was also stripped off his position as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Khawaja Asif, firebrand and Nawaz Sharif loyalist, was elevated to the parliamentary leader of the party.
Thursday, the 16th of May, was a turning point in the PML-N’s decision-making followed by the party shakeup, as party workers and leaders gathered at the Kot Lakhpat jail. Many Nawaz Sharif loyalists were present when the former Premier gave the go ahead to switch from silence to resistance mode, both within and without the parliament. The old invitation for dinner from Asif Ali Zardari, earlier extended to Nawaz Sharif himself, was accepted. Sharif directed his heir apparent, now the Vice President of the party, to attend the Iftar dinner on Sunday, the 19th of May, along with senior leaders of the party. Moreover she was to take cousin Hamza Shehbaz along to convey a semblance of unity in the House of Sharifs. Khawaja Asif, once a tight friend of Zardari, chose to stay put. The Sialkoti, prone to being led by his emotions, had developed a personal bitterness against Zardari after he reportedly stopped his close family relative Farooq Naek from representing him in the apex court during the disqualification proceedings against him filed by the PTI.
The optics were good for the opposition: it appeared united. Both young leaders of the two oldest and big parties faced the cameras for the first time, sending out a message of unity and defiance. Insiders, however, confirmed to The Friday Times that both Bilawal and Maryam, who do not carry the bitterness of their parents, have been in touch with each other for quite sometime on political and mundane issues alike.
Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, out of parliament for the first time after a long time has been itching to lead a movement against the PTI government. He has now finally been given the task of hosting an All Parties Conference to discuss a future course of action against the government. The APC will most likely be held two weeks after Eid, around the last quarter of June when the budget session, too, would be ending.
As much as both the PML-N and the PPP feel pushed into resistance mode, mutual suspicions remain. Both parties have been jilted by each other in the past and there is still a fear in the rank and file of the parties that either side can back out of this assertive new oppositional stance if they are given some kind of accommodation or respite from the state’s persecution.
But mutual suspicion notwithstanding, both parties are affected by the ruling party’s punitive measures against them. Both also see a need to mount a political response to worsening economic conditions in the country.
“The appeasement by Shehbaz and Asif Zardari failed to deliver for both parties. PML-N lost both the federal and the provincial governments. Zardari was able to retain the Sindh government after 2018 elections but has now been hounded along with his sister. Now they are breathing down Bilawal’s neck. Both have no other option but to resist”, notes a veteran journalist in Islamabad.
“The worsening economic conditions are another trigger for both the PPP and the PML-N. The leaders of both parties feel that due to the growing diplomatic isolation coupled with economic mismanagement and governance failure of the PTI government, a major popular outburst is expected at any moment. They feel if they keep quiet, it could lead to anarchic situation and some new political actors might fill the void. They genuinely fear to be left behind and be made irrelevant”, continues the same analyst and adds, “This is what has brought them to the dining table together.”
As much as the smaller parties wanted a clear line of action, both the PPP and the PML-N were in no hurry. The baton for the next get-together has now been passed on to Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, who intends to host the APC as the budget session will be in its final stages.
So, will they come out on streets soon after the Eid?
The answer is a big ‘no’.
Before both the PML-N and the PPP can go into any serious agitation against the government, they will have to make serious efforts to adopt new confidence-building measures among themselves and bridge the trust deficit.
“Zardari Sahib is still holding a trump card close to his chest. Before we make a major upset out on the streets, we can up the ante in Senate. In one week we can remove Sadiq Sanjrani, a relic of PPP-establishment cooperation and bring in a Chairman to launch a major parliamentary offensive against this administration. As to when Zardari will make up his mind to grab this low-hanging fruit, we have yet to wait and see. That would be the litmus test telling us that Zardari Sahib has no more hope from the Establishment”, explains a PML-N veteran, requesting anonymity.
The situation on the streets, however, is deteriorating fast. A post-IMF economic downturn will become a lethal mix when the budget is announced. The imposition of new taxes to the tune of hundreds of billions of rupees along with the rising prices of utilities and food items and rising oil prices, unemployment and poverty is bound to create conditions for a major upheaval. The system can’t sustain deteriorating economic conditions and a political witch-hunt combined with the suppression of the freedom of expression at the same time. The pressure cooker would need a safety valve or the system will crash.
One factor that the opposition parties will pay particular attention to will be the time of the retirement (or extension) of the Army Chief, due this fall. The external front, too, will play an important role. The aftermath of the Indian elections and how the administration in Delhi will deal with the Imran Khan administration, the endgame in Kabul and the climax of the new tensions in the Persian Gulf region will have an impact on the evolving domestic situation.
One thing is sure: the status quo in Pakistan is not tenable. This fall, we will either see the quick fall of the Imran Khan administration or a brand new political chessboard in Pakistan and the larger region.