Dark clouds on the political horizon
Eleven opposition parties met at an Iftar (breaking fast) dinner in Islamabad at Chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s residence on May 19, 2019. If Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman had had his way in persuading the moot to come out in a united long march and sit-in/shutdown of Islamabad (a la Imran Khan’s dharna of 2014) immediately after Eid, we would once again have witnessed the familiar pattern of an incumbent government being challenged by a host of disparate opposition forces with but a one-point agenda: remove the government. However, the Maulana is no Nawabzada Nasrullah, that late lamented master of forging broad based opposition alliances in our history. Therefore Maulana Fazlur Rehman had to be content with what he could carry away from the opposition meeting. This consisted essentially of an agreement to mount individual parties’ protests for the moment and to come together in an All Parties Conference after Eid, to be chaired by the Maulana, to chalk out the future course and joint strategy of the opposition for its anti-government drive.
There may be those, including the Maulana, who were disappointed by this ‘halfway’ conclusion or outcome to the eagerly awaited coming together of a divided opposition, basically divided because of the history of a conflicted relationship between Asif Ali Zardari and the Sharif brothers, despite the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in exile in London in 2016. At the meeting itself, both Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz, stepping out into a leading political role, pointed to the fact that the CoD had facilitated the continuance of democracy in paving the way for the peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other through the ballot box for the first time in the country’s chequered history. The desire was on display to broaden the ranks of the parties adhering to the CoD by including more political parties within its fold.
Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif have not had the easiest or smoothest of relationships. For example, Nawaz appeared in black coat before the Supreme Court in pursuance of the Memogate case, something he later regretted. Shahbaz swore to rip open Asif Zardari's stomach and recover alleged ill-gotten wealth (ironic in hindsight, given that today Shahbaz is under the National Accountability Bureau hammer himself). The older generation therefore carries more than its fair share of baggage from the past. This is not necessarily baggage that has carried to the new generation poised to take over the reins of these two major political parties. The PPP’s only hope of resurrection lies in Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) Maryam Nawaz represents the brightest hope on the horizon for turning around the party’s fortunes. Neither is as tainted by allegations of corruption as their elders. This could serve to deflect if not diffuse the criticism from the government and its supporters that the sole purpose of the opposition getting together is to save those in its leadership who are facing corruption charges.
While there may be a modicum of (unacknowledged by those accused) truth in these charges, they have been overused by the PTI while in opposition and certainly after being ensconced in power. Their efficacy is also wilting in the face of the government’s disastrous performance in office over the last nine months. There is now open speculation amongst the commentariat whether this government can last out its five-year term and, if it does, what that may portend for the people and the country.
Handling the economy has proved the Achilles heel of this government. For them to argue that they had no idea things were so bad (because, they repeat ad nauseam, of the mess inherited from the past 10 or 70 years – take your pick) is unfortunately only half the picture. The PTI did not know accurately how things stood not only because they had conjured up a subjective, politically motivated and partisan picture of the economic landscape (e.g. corruption is the main, if not only problem of Pakistan, by which they meant the corruption of the Zardaris and Sharifs, money laundered abroad in the billions will be recovered, overseas Pakistanis will invest billions in Pakistan after a PTI government is installed, and other similar fanciful slogans that had little or no basis in reality or underestimated the challenge of proving and recovering so-called stolen money as well as persuading Pakistanis abroad and at home to invest so that foreigners would also be persuaded to return with their money bags to our shores). None of this has transpired because, also, the PTI has displayed all the characteristics of a party that is a prisoner of its own rhetoric. It has yet to make the transition (if that is at all possible) from the unabashed, unfettered, even wild rhetoric atop a container to responsible policy, statements and steps in conformity with the ground realities.
The government’s actions over the last nine months have further depleted the confidence and ability to function with relative ease of the business community. The critical need to meet revenue targets, if not increase tax collection, has persuaded the government to further squeeze through raids, tax notices and sundry other coercive measures, the existing tax filers. In the process, businesses already reeling under the impact of the recession in the country have closed. Meanwhile the non-tax filers are laughing all the way to the bank and at the ‘innocent’ filers who may be ruing their adherence to the law and rules. This is the surest way to cook the golden goose. The new FBR chief at least has acknowledged this by halting such measures.
As to the opposition, the PML-N was meeting in Islamabad as these lines are being written to decide its future course of action after briefing its two leaders: Nawaz Sharif in jail and Shahbaz Sharif in London. Whether the two main opposition parties will be able, under the generational change in their dynastic politics, to overcome their past differences and come together to mount a concerted challenge to the government only time will tell. However, there is another factor that may impinge on developments. The people are groaning under the tsunami of inflation, unemployment, lack of employment, rupee free fall that has been unleashed in the first nine months of the government. More seems on the cards now that the country has been all but delivered in hock to the IMF. Whether the opposition comes out in a united movement after Eid or not will determine the character of the response to the people’s serious difficulties. If the movement is led by a combined opposition, there is hope it will remain peaceful. If, however, this does not happen or fails in practice, the possibility of anarchy, violence and even bloodshed cannot be ruled out.
In this scenario, one wonders what the masterminds of the present dispensation are war gaming?