Both the PPP and the PMLN have come out of their seeming political hibernation with guns blazing threatening to launch street protest against the 10-month old PTI-led coalition government.
The leadership of both the main opposition parties are talking tough. Their target: incompetent management of the national economy by the new government; the IMF agreement; the shock devaluation of the rupee against the dollar; the amnesty scheme; the appointment of Hafeez Shaikh as the PM’s adviser on finance and that of Reza Baqir, an ex-IMF man as the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.
The PMLN, in the immediate run has reshuffled its office bearers. And on the directive of the incarcerated Nawaz Sharif the Party’s General Secretary Ahsan Iqbal has convened a meeting on May 20 in Islamabad to discuss the option of taking to the streets against the government.
On Friday Shahbaz Sharif, the president of the PMLN and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly talking to the media in London took the government to task accusing it of selling out to the IMF. He was very hard on Prime Minister, Imran Khan calling him a shameless liar. On the same day in Karachi Muhammad Zubair, former Sindh Governor read out a long list of failures of the government on the economic front. He reserved his bitterest criticism for Hafeez Shaikh and Reza Baqir alleging that the two had no roots in Pakistan as, he alleged, they preferred to keep their properties in foreign countries, not in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is said to have invited all opposition party leaders to an Iftar-dinner party. He is also said to have had telephonic conversation with Maryam Nawaz. Ms. Nawaz who was recently appointed Vice President of the PMLN is said have decided to start taking active part in politics.
Clearly, the opposition seems to have decided to bring under further pressure an already faltering government by fully exploiting the general public’s suffering induced by the recent all-round price-hike.
The opposition seems to have been emboldened by the successful street power that the PMLN could mobilize on the night of May 7, 2019 when an emotionally charged, fairly large slogan-chanting crowd accompanied Nawaz on his way back to Kot Lakhpat jail from Jati Umra. The show of street power that one witnessed in Lahore was unexpected, at least, for most of our political pundits. And they were certainly not expecting to hear the crowd shouting in resounding unison the GT Road mantra ‘vote ko izzat do’.
And all of a sudden somebody appeared to be feeling too nervous because the broadcast media, with no exception, relayed highly ‘self-censored’, ‘muted’ video clips of the event in patches pointing to a new twist in the tale that had begun with the ouster of Nawaz from government and then from politics midway through 2017 when the Supreme Court found him, according to a self-serving interpretation of the relevant law, guilty of not being ‘Sadiq’ and ‘Ameen’.
Most of the political pundits had woven a fiction about the PMLN leadership in the wake of the second incarceration of Nawaz following NAB court’s guilty verdict in the Al-Azizia case and kept repeating it so many times, from so many angles that they started believing it to be a fact.
One fiction that was most popular was that Nawaz and his daughter were trying to cut a deal and go abroad doing a repeat of 2000 when the Sharif family preferred a decade-long exile to Nawaz’ incarceration in Pakistan after having been found guilty of an abortive plane hijacking case.
And when Shahbaz Sharif, known to be the proverbial ‘good cop’ in the PMLN with a reputation of being close to the Army was nominated as the President of the PMLN, the move was taken as proof of a deal-in-the-making. The PTI helped promote the fiction when some of its leaders like Murad Saeed claimed that they were privy to such a deal being sought. And Prime Minister Imran Khan lent further credence to the fiction by declaring, every time he made a public statement, that he would rather die than grant ‘NRO’ to the ‘corrupt’ leadership of PMLN and PPP.
During this period, that is leading up to the new year the PMLN under the leadership of Shahbaz Sharif went about planning its post- election strategy. Understandably, the opposition decided to accept the results, under protest though. Rejecting them immediately following their announcement would have meant going back to the streets to prove the point which, considering the post- election national mood in the immediate run, did not seem a politically savvy move or even practical. And the fear that if the move succeeded the system itself would be wrapped up by the establishment (read Army) as it would never contemplate letting the opposition PMLN led by Shahbaz return to power so soon.
Then it was time for oath taking ceremony for the newly elected NA members followed by elections of the Speaker and his deputy, the leader of the house (Imran Khan) and the leader of the opposition (Shahbaz).
The long drawn tussle between the ruling coalition and the opposition over the election of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which finally ended with the election of Shahbaz Sharif on December 13 was a classical demonstration of how an experienced opposition could make rings around an inexperienced government benches.
By this time the utter incompetence of the PTI and its leader were on full display. Indeed, it was not a government in full command of parliament that entered the new year, thanks largely to the aggressive posturing that the opposition had adopted under the leadership of Shahbaz and the young PPP Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. They did not let the PM dominate the NA even for a single day from day one which actually forced Imran Khan to keep away from the House. He is yet to attend a single session of the Upper House. On the two occasions that the Opposition allowed him to speak in the NA—once taking the House in confidence on why he was releasing the Indian pilot brought down by Pakistan Air Force men in a dog-fight over Pakistani air-space and the other occasion when he stood up in the House the other day to hail the passage of the 26thConstitutional Amendment with the full cooperation of the Opposition— he was totally lackluster and uninspiring, seemingly lost for the right words and the right language to express his feelings.
He does appear in his elements and passionately convincing only when attacking the opposition and calling them ‘Chor, Dakoo’. But while speaking on policy issues in or out of NA or when delivering written speeches on ceremonial occasions or at official events, he appears almost tongue tide, as if his heart is not in it—his facial expression, eyes and the pitch of his voice usually don’t match the words being spoken. He sounds more like an automaton.
Most of the second half of February and early March were taken up by Indo-Pak clash which Pakistan had won hands down. The opposition, naturally, was completely one with the government on this occasion.
Most of his team along with Imran Khan himself being outsiders, having never before managed the affairs of a government (the KP experience was too meagre compared to the challenges of the federation) they were finding it increasingly difficult to make the federal bureaucracy work the way the government wanted. Most of the civil servants had stopped working because of the NAB sword over their heads.
Meanwhile, the price hikes, the steep devaluation and foot dragging on the matter of going or not going to the IMF led to total chaos on the economic front creating the impression of a government collapsing under its own weight. The emerging situation was something like god-sent for the opposition which exploited it the hilt by attacking the government both inside Parliament as well as in the Punjab provincial assembly and out-side in the prime-time talk-shows matching the government’s media trial being conducted using half-truths against the main leadership of the opposition PMLN and PPP.
And when the PM mid-way through April replaced his finance team which was being led by PTI poster boy Asad Umar with a brand new team led by Hafeez Shaikh who is a technocrat and certainly not a member of the Party in power it was seen as the beginning of the end of the Prime Minister Imran Khan’s lead role in the affairs of the PTI-led coalition government.
The appointment of IMF’s country mission chief in Egypt, Reza Baqir as the Governor of State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and a third technocrat, Syed Shabbar Zaidi, Senior Partner in Ferguson Associates, a tax consultancy firm as the Chairman of Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) has reinforced the impression that now the government is being run not by Imran Khan and his coalition partners but by what was earlier (during the pre-and post-election days) referred to as Khalai Makhlookh (KM).
The lingering fear that the KM would wrap up the system itself in case it appeared that the selected government would collapse in the face of street protest leading to fresh elections, opening up the possibility of the PMLN returning to power is likely to make the opposition to think twice before deciding to cross the Rubicon. Most probably, it would refrain from taking the plunge. But perhaps the selectors would not mind if the opposition could maneuver an in-House change with Imran being replaced by Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
This will allow the PTI-led government to complete its five-year term as did the PPP and the PMLN governments despite each losing one PM, warding off, in the process, the possibility of KM wrapping up the system and taking over setting the country back at least by a decade once again, in terms of democracy.
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