Back to the future for Bilawal’s PPP and Maryam’s PML-N
Paradoxically, it is the worst and best of times for opposition political forces in Pakistan and what they do next will not only affect their political fortunes and the country’s, but shape how the current government will fare in its remaining term.
It is the best of times because in terms of the sheer number of its legislators in the bicameral parliament, the opposition controls the Senate, while in the National Assembly it has the highest numbers in the country’s electoral history. The treasury benches led by Imran Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and its four allied parties have a razor thin majority and the opposition could really bite them hard if they wanted to.
But it is the worst of times because the top leadership and legislators of key opposition parties are in jail – former President Asif Zardari of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, current leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shahbaz and key members of the National Assembly like Saad Rafique of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
Also, the chiefs of several opposition parties lost last year’s national elections and can’t be in the National Assembly. As if this wasn’t bad enough, other key leaders such as leader of the opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif and PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz are currently facing court cases and are out on bail – therefore vulnerable to being re-incarcerated.
Yet others including former Prime Minister Pervaiz Ashraf of the PPP and former prime minister Shahid Khaqan of the PML-N are facing accountability references that might see them jailed in the coming weeks.
So how will the opposition fight back and reclaim an influence that is in actual proportion to their size and muscle in and out of parliament?
The answer lies principally in a potential collaboration between the PPP and PML-N in adopting a combined strategy. Their members constitute four-fifths of the entire opposition numbers in parliament and the largest combined size of street power should they choose to launch a public movement against the government.
And yet, even though the two parties (between them) have won eight of the ten elections in Pakistan’s history, they have both been traditionally bitter political foes and do not lend themselves to easy cooperation and collaboration.
With the political leaderships of most political parties either rendered electorally irrelevant or hounded into jails and courts, the mantle awaits the PPP and the PML-N to assume a collaborative opposition leadership once more.
This is only the second time they find themselves on the same side of the political divide. The first was in 1999 when General Pervaiz Musharraf overthrew the Sharif government and overnight, the PML-N and the PPP found themselves in the uncomfortable and bewildering position of having a new political rival that forced them to come together.
The PPP and the PML-N became reluctant friends only after some years of dealing with the confusing status of ‘frenemies’ – instinctively enemies but circumstantially friends – when the now-jailed Sharif and now-assassinated Benazir Bhutto buried the hatchet while in exile and stitched together a landmark political compact called the charter of democracy to lay down the rules for a new era of bipartisan politics. That strengthened parliamentary politics even if one of the parties came to power again and the other did not.
When it finally happened in 2008 – when military rule was forced out by the combined might of the PPP and the PML-N (with help from other opposition parties) – the two sides honored the bargain, allowing the governments and National Assembly to complete their five-year tenures for the first time, as well as an orderly transfer of power between civilians.
Things are different now and the challenges accordingly tough. With the political leaderships of most political parties – except the ruling PTI and a couple of minor ruling alliance groups – either rendered electorally irrelevant or hounded into jails and courts, the mantle awaits the PPP and the PML-N to assume a collaborative opposition leadership once more.
It is not easy because the young new leaders – Bilawal and Maryam – are yet to build bilateral trust and offer each other opportunities to show support. Promising small steps have been taken – both are tweeting in support of each other’s parties, jailed leaderships and against corruption cases facing the rest, and have met twice in two months to start hashing out a common opposition strategy.
The first real litmus test for Bilawal and Maryam is to help forge a joint opposition political strategy at the All Parties Conference at the end of of this month. This will effectively mean moving beyond soundbites and launching themselves into a 'street battle' against a ‘bully' government.
This ‘street credit’ typifies real opposition status in Pakistani politics. It offers the perfect foil for Bilawal and Maryam to prove their mettle. Ironically, they will become leaders only by helping to strengthen each other, which is not the easiest task for technical enemies.
Will they match the bipartisanship of Benazir and Nawaz, or perhaps even surpass them?
It’s hard to see the PPP and the PML-N surviving if they don’t.