Freedom’s march to nowhere
The leader of the country’s most powerful Islamic party, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a colorful, wily politician, and head of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F), has thrown down the gauntlet to the government and threatened to march on the capital. He is now seeking to emulate Imran Khan’s threats to the previous government, to put the capital under siege even though his objectives remain unclear.
Finding it politically expedient with almost the entire leadership of the country’s biggest opposition parties either in prison or under investigation on graft charges, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have decided to support what is being called the “Freedom March.” Egged on by Khan’s failure to deliver on many of his party’s election promises, and desperate to survive politically, the country’s squabbling opposition groups seem to be nearing the single-point agenda of bringing the government down.
However, the PML-N and PPP have taken a very cautious position, as they are not sure about the outcome of the march. While extending their support, they are not willing to stake all their political capital on Rehman's game. They know well the high risks involved in taking on the security establishment, which fully supports Khan’s government.
It is apparent that with no significant presence in Parliament, the JUI-F has few stakes in the existing system, unlike the other two major opposition parties. Both PML-N and PPP may be happy with Rehman upping the ante, but they are not ready to burn their boats.
Many analysts also believe the JUI-F is simply trying to keep itself politically relevant. The party has managed to stay in the news this past year despite an electoral setback and remained an important part of the country’s power structure for more than two decades, irrespective of whichever government was in power.
But the party was dealt a major blow in the last elections. Not only did Rehman lose his own seat, he also saw his party being virtually wiped out — and he blamed the army for the worst electoral defeat that his party has ever suffered. Adding to the disgrace was the fact that the elections brought to power his arch-enemy, Imran Khan.
These disparate opposition groups may not be able to overthrow the government through street power, but the emerging alliance has already made things more difficult for Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Not one to take humiliation lying down, Rehman vowed to bring Khan’s government down. For that, he needed to pull together disparate opposition groups and used the tried and tested formula of calling for a multi-party conference in order to form an anti-government united front.
Their own grievances and reservations over the elections pulled in the PML-N and PPP, though Rehman's rightwing political agenda makes them wary. There is a clear divide within both PML-N and PPP ranks on the extent of their support to the JUI-F march. The divisions within the Muslim League are more palpable. While Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who is serving a prison sentence on corruption charges, wants the party to fully participate in the agitation, his brother Shabaz Sharif has advocated for a more moderate approach.
Rehman's own games also make the other parties more cautious about his designs. Another contentious point is his attempt to play the religion card in his anti-government campaign. Being the chief of the country’s largest religious political party, the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger,’ comes in handy in order to whip up religious sentiment.
These disparate opposition groups may not be able to overthrow the government through street power, but the emerging alliance has already made things more difficult for the Prime Minister, who is struggling to come to grips with governance and economic problems.
Surely, even if united, the opposition parties do not have the capacity or street power across the country to bring down the government. They are however, capable of making things more difficult for a rudderless government. The so-called accountability process targeting major opposition leaders has given them something more with which to hit back at the government.
Imran Khan is now dealing with problems on several fronts. The emerging political alignment, which has brought bitter rivals PML-N and PPP together, is ominous, although it may be sheer political expediency that has forced the two to join hands. Indeed, it signifies the shifting sands of Pakistani politics
Surely, over the years, the JUI-F’s popular base has shrunk substantially but its capacity to mobilize seminary students in various parts of the country cannot be underestimated. They could create a serious law-and-order problem though they can neither bring the government down nor force it to hold fresh elections.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.