Will The Mouse Roar: The Opposition’s Threat of Agitation
Three constants exist in the frayed relationship between Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party that assumed power at the center for the first time last year — and opposition parties that have ruled Pakistan for the better part of forty years.
First, that the two major political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), openly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the elections and the victory of the PTI almost as soon as results were revealed.
A third party, the Islamist Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam which is led by a deft political player in Pakistan’s chaotic political scene, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman, also convened a major post-election conference, proposed a boycott of the assemblies and called for fresh elections. All parties made electoral legitimacy a major issue in their confrontations with the PTI.
Second, political power alternated between the PMLN and PPP for decades, and both were engaged in political conflict, focused on toppling each other from power in a no-holds-barred confrontation. The subsequent chaos and systemic corruption eroded the power of the state and institutional capacity for governance declined. Military interventions between 1999-2008 created a king’s party of the fragments of older parties, and provided temporary relief but at the cost of the country’s institutional balance.
The polarized confrontation resumed during and after the 2008 elections, which finally edged out military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. The PPP and PMLN blamed each other for corruption, plunder, money-laundering and the economic crises of the country. The tone of accusations was personal, ugly and at times, both immoral and undemocratic. But with Imran Khan as the new player on the block and his party rising in popularity since the 2013 general elections, the PMLN and PPP turned their political cannons toward it.
Third, the PTI has been campaigning against the two parties since its creation over two decades ago. Its entire ethos was built on the idea of holding these parties accountable- for corruption, poverty, low economic growth, a debt burden and bad governance. In Pakistan, where corruption is systematic, making it an electoral plank meant swimming against the tide.
Informally, all the opposition parties are on one page in their intent to confront the government in the national assemblies, in the media and in public rallies. Secretly however, they are not so sure if they can actually pull the government down by crippling it with agitation politics.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Since coming to power, Khan has continued this rhetoric against corruption, promising the accountability of any individual involved in corrupt practices while in power in the past. While still in opposition, he brought forward a case against then sitting prime minister Nawaz Sharif for his offshore companies registered in Panama, which led to Sharif’s eventual disqualification by the Supreme Court. In yet another corruption case, in December 2018, the top court sentenced him to seven years in prison where he is currently out on medical bail. Currently, Sharif’s brother and four-time chief minister of Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif and his son are facing corruption cases in the courts.
Another major political player, former President and co-Chairman of the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari is no different. He is accused by the National Accountability Bureau of money laundering through hundreds of fake bank accounts and is on pre-arrest bail. Rumours are that he might be arrested the moment he runs out of legal remedies. The truth of the matter is that the Sharifs and Zardaris simply never expected the accountability process could touch them. The investigating institutions were weak and the judiciary was crippled.
But the accountability process changed in a big way before the elections of 2018, apparently with a push from Pakistan’s security establishment and a superior judiciary unwilling to provide relief to the accused. Now, the PPP and PMLN accuse the PTI government and NAB of working in tandem- a conventional way of politicizing the legal and accountability process.
Some of Pakistan’s current ground realities, specifically concerning the economy, provide enough arsenal for the opposition to bash the PTI. But the big question is whether these parties, egged on by the infamous Maulana Fazal (who has threatened to bring one million protesters to Islamabad), will take to the streets. Informally, all the opposition parties are on one page in their intent to confront the government in the national assemblies, in the media and in public rallies. Secretly however, they are not so sure if they can actually pull the government down by crippling it with agitation politics.
“Frankly, there is hardly any discernible public sentiment against the government that the opposition leaders could mobilize to carry through their threat. No stranger to sit-ins, Imran Khan has even dared them to try and offered containers they could use for their demonstration in Islamabad.”
What is for certain is that the political atmosphere in Pakistan is toxic and driven by hostility It is hardly supportive of or even compatible with the goals of consolidating democracy. Until the opposition and government start behaving in a more civilized and politically mature way, the institutional development of the country will remain on hold.
– 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).