It’s back to the future for the political opposition in Pakistan
One of the essential features of Pakistani politics is its bipolarity, as it is heavily invested in power politics. Pakistan doesn’t represent a normal political divide between a party in government and parties in the opposition. Contrary to the norms and principles of a democratic set up, the opposition parties have never accepted the legitimacy of the government in power for one reason or the other.
This is not the first time that opposition parties have questioned the legitimacy of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government either.
Since its first transition to democracy, when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) formed a government in early 1972, the opposition parties have been doing what they continue to do till date — bring their resources together to pull down the government, with a total disregard for the fact that the government has been elected by the people.
The opposition, similar to those from the past and including the PTI (2013-18), is harping on familiar lines of “rigged” and “managed” elections, adding that the party was “brought into power” by the invisible hand of the powerful military establishment.
We all know that in democracies, no government can function with credibility without an effective opposition. This is not just about the presence of the opposition in the legislature, media, or in the public arena alone, but also about the stand it takes on policy issues, national challenges, and reforms planned by the government.
Sadly, the opposition — for the larger part of Pakistan’s democratic experience — has been a ceremonial entity. The political elite of Pakistan have traditionally played a game of joining either of the two camps, as there is no third one. These include the coalition which is likely to form the next government — and if there is no space left to be filled — then it is the opposition coalition. During the past four decades, this has been the pattern with a few instances of a brief truce in the name of ‘reconciliation’.
The two major parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) and the PPP were locked into a confrontation for more than four decades. They quite brazenly bought and sold political ‘horses’— member of the provincial and national legislatures— to topple each other’s governments, not once but four times. As they lost out to an intervening military regime and faced ‘accountability’ on corruption charges, they discovered a new meaning to the politics of ‘reconciliation’. When decoded, it meant two things: let us forget our past confrontation and never bother each other with accusations of graft. You have what you have, and let us have what we have. Secondly, let us unite to fight a common foe — the military regime of Pervaiz Musharraf. Even that understanding under the Charter of Democracy didn’t stop Benazir Bhutto from striking a confidential deal with the military leader.
The rise of the PTI with a mandate for accountability, end of corruption and introduction of national reforms has obviously unnerved the two major parties — the PMLN and the PPP — breaking their political domination of more than four decades.
After a lot of political shuffling before and after the elections, Pakistan is back to the old pattern of its two-camp, bipolar power politics.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
The repeated assertion of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party colleagues that they wouldn’t grant any “national reconciliation ordinance” has pushed the opposition parties to close their ranks. The ordinance was a law which was single-handedly enacted by Musharraf and resulted in changing the constitution to withdraw corruption cases against Bhutto and her spouse, Asif Ali Zardari, along with hundreds of others in return for their support to get him elected as president for the second term.
After a lot of political shuffling before and after the elections, Pakistan is back to the old pattern of its two-camp, bipolar power politics. Two questions are important here — what does the future hold for the opposition parties, and what is likely to be their strategy as the accountability processes are moved against them?
Let me briefly discuss the strategy part first, as the future depends on what they can do and actually succeed in doing within the legislature and outside.
The opposition has a three-pranged strategy woven into the narrative of the PTI: one of an artificial construct that has come into power through a ‘fraudulent’ electoral process.
These parties knew very well what they would be facing if the PTI got elected in the Punjab province and at the center. In the initial stages of the election results, they saw an unfavorable trend, resulting in the fact that even before the complete results had been announced, they questioned the legitimacy of the exercise. Consistent with this predetermined theme, they will continue to raise questions about the PTI’s right to rule.
Secondly, the opposition parties may not allow the PTI to pass any legislation in the Senate where they have a clear majority. Obstructionism is a familiar and well-tested tool of camp-based power politics. Finally, they are well prepared for political agitation, especially if the PPP leaders also go behind bars — something which is widely speculated in the light of a very damning report submitted by the Joint Investigation Taskforce. The report identifies thousands of fake bank accounts and money laundering of hundred of billion of rupees spearheaded by powerful figures within this party.
There are a number of factors that may frustrate the strategy of the opposition parties. Firstly, the four important organs of the state— the National Assembly, the political executive, the judiciary, and the military— happen to be on the same page in terms of dealing with corruption and accountability. Secondly, they face a popular and populist leader, Imran Khan, who is determined, has grit, and believes he is destined to ‘change’ Pakistan forever. That leaves little room for ‘reconciliation’.
Finally, corruption and accountability of public office holders has gradually come to stir popular national self-imagination in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The rising middle class, the media, and the laymen believe Pakistan has been left behind in comparison to several nations because of the corruption of the ruling political coalitions. With this image, the old political parties and their opposition may not have a popular base or enjoy the support to discredit accountability as being victimized, selective, or unfair. Having said that, they may go to extremes to confront the PTI government, which is the logical means to go about things in bipolar power politics.
– Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).