he PTI is crowing. The media agrees that the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is on the rocks. Asif Zardari has had a serious falling out with the rest of the nine PDM leaders, especially Nawaz Sharif, over several issues, compelling an indefinite “postponement” of the Long March, forget the mass resignations from parliament.
Messrs Sharif & Rehman want the PDM to resign enmasse from the national and provincial assemblies and plunge the hybrid system into a crisis of legitimacy. They believe that the government cannot possibly hold free, fair and peaceful by-elections in over 450 constituencies whatever method it uses, and sooner rather than later, it will be compelled to seek a fresh mandate from the people, a general election the PDM component parties, led by the PMLN, will sweep because the PTI has irrevocably lost its sheen. They also believe that the Establishment cannot be trusted to stay “neutral” in any such upheaval, pointing to several betrayals down the line relating to “deals” with Shahbaz Sharif and even Mr Zardari himself.
Mr Zardari’s argument is that the nine components of the PDM have nothing to lose if this strategy doesn’t work – because they are all out in the cold — and much to gain if it does, especially the PMLN which expects to win the next elections if these are held now. But the PPP has a solid government in Sindh, it has just secured the largest number of seats in the Senate and is poised to capture its chairmanship too. If it burns its boats now, it can at best only win back the Sindh government and not much more than its current share in the national and provincial assemblies in the next elections. But if the strategy fails, it will lose whatever it has now. So there’s nothing in it for the PPP, unless Mr Sharif can fork over some additional political incentives in the next dispensation. What might these be?
Mr Zardari says he can lure a sufficient number of PTI MNAs and MPAs in the Punjab into deserting the PTI and helping the PDM form governments to run until 2023. But for this Mr Sharif will need to give these deserters guarantees that they will be allowed to freely contest the next national and provincial elections – possibly as independents or on a PPP ticket — without competition from the PMLN. However, this deal doesn’t cut it for Mr Sharif because it means he will not be able to field solid majorities in the Punjab or Islamabad and will have to share power with Mr Zardari. Nor is Mr Sharif amenable to the idea of joining Mr Zardari in coalition governments today that will face the full brunt of the people’s wrath if they are unable to deliver in these impossible circumstances in such a short span of time.
Mr Zardari would like to lead the PDM into waging guerilla war against the Establishment-propped PTI government, chipping away at its edges and weakening its defenses, like it has done successfully in the recent by-elections and senate elections. This would involve launching votes of no-confidence first in the Punjab and then in Islamabad, capturing one after the other. But his strategy runs afoul of Mr Sharif who doesn’t want to partake of any ineffectual coalitions that rob the PMLN of its goodwill in the next elections. Above all, neither Nawaz Sharif nor Mariam, the two vote pullers, stand to get any benefits from such interim arrangements. Mr Zardari, on the other hand, can expect Bilawal and the PPP to take full advantage of any such interregnum.
The two sides have also fallen out on how to divide the spoils of the recent victory in the Senate. If the PPP’s Yusuf Raza Gilani doesn’t win the Senate Chairman’s seat, the PPP wants him to be the Leader of the Opposition by virtue of the fact that it has more seats than any other party. But the PMLN says this was pledged to it in the original plan and wont relent. The PPP says Mr Gilani would make a more forceful opposition leader than either of the two PMLN candidates, Azam Tarrar and Sadia Abbasi. It also has a particular distaste for Mr Tarrar, the Sharif family lawyer, who is defending the policemen accused of the murder of Benazir Bhutto. This is hardly a conducive environment in which to negotiate coalitions in the Punjab or Islamabad.
Under the circumstances, one may expect both sides to retreat and rethink. But one thing is clear: unless the PDM decides to go ahead without the PPP, there is no getting back to the Long March and Resignations for some months. Covid is spiking. Ramzan is round the corner. The Eid holidays will follow. Then the hot and rainy season will swamp all until next September or October. Will Messrs Sharif & Maulana still see advantage in quitting parliaments soon?
It isn’t inconceivable. They can remain in parliament for as long as the concerned Speakers refuse to accept their resignations and create a ruckus and logjam, while enjoying the high moral ground of having “resigned” on “principle”! They can also join hands with the PPP to destablise the PTI government or embarrass the PPP if it tries to cosy up to it, as the situation so demands. After all, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. In this situation, however, the PPP will find itself in no-man’s land: the PTI will continue to try and strangulate it, the Establishment will continue to play treacherous games with it, and the public will roundly disavow its opportunism.
Clearly, there is much to rethink in every quarter. If the PMLN relaunches its attacks on the Establishment and its leaders by name, there is bound to be hand-wringing and soul searching. At the least, the Establishment will increase pressure on Imran Khan to focus on delivering good governance instead of screwing the opposition. This will aggravate fissures. Mr Zardari too cannot possibly relish the prospect of alienation from allies and hostility from opponents.
Despite the current PDM setback, Game On Hai, still!