Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has become the opposition the government wanted: disorderly, one-dimensional and losing momentum. In the last three years, PTI’s opposition has sounded more like a dragged election campaign in a post-election hangover. This single dimension opposition has fragmented PTI internally, and damaged its credibility externally. And in the end, the party that had introduced itself as the only hope for change within the democratic system is itself hoping for a new lifeline to restore its momentum.

PTI’s role as a shadow government has been fairly disappointing. Within a democratic setup, the only way to change the status-quo is methodical opposition on all issues, with due proportion, and on all avenues of public discourse. The singular focus on rigging has neglected the issues of economy, energy, foreign policy, security, and accountability, amongst others. To maintain the legitimacy of its cause, and for the sake of the due process, an effective opposition would have exhausted all platforms, including the parliament, the higher courts, and the media, regardless of its chances of success at each venue. So far, PTI has only exhausted these avenues for election rigging, at the cost of all other issues of public interest. This single point maximalist position has put PTI from the street to the sidewalk. Fittingly, an opposition that claims to be better than the incumbent government, without actually being an effective opposition first, loses its claim to either.

The linearity in opposition, however, is not an isolated set of miscalculations but rather symptomatic of a fundamental weakness in PTI’s approach. Undeniably, Imran Khan has attracted youth with his charisma and the youth had responded by putting powerful momentum behind the party. What is missing is the direction and the institutional discipline to channelize this momentum into political gains. A strong momentum without direction is a misfire at best. The first and second tier leadership has been unable to add their weight in diversifying and taking ownership and command on core issues to prove that, if given an opportunity, they will be the better alternative. The popularity and the title of real opposition thus inadvertently fuels singularly from the campaign style sloganeering, pushing the party to hyperbole confrontations in bi-elections to keep its momentum.

PTI will never be a party of disciplined hierarchy because it lacks the banner of dynasty politics or iron-fisted command but where it could have used this de-centralised structure as a fertile ground for first-class second and third tier leadership. So far, it has only created conflicted and misaligned groupings. The synergies that should have been streamlined towards attacking policy and governance frontiers have instead become liabilities in the form of power struggles for regional control. And, since the ascent to eminence within the party is tied directly to beating the ‘rigging’ drum, it has put all major players on a single road to prove their ideological loyalty and political contribution to the party. A multi-dimensional opposition would have naturally aligned the party hierarchy and reduced the room for conflict by insulating specialised domains, focusing on economy, energy, security and foreign policy. It would have created enough space for top tier leadership to simultaneously remain active at the forefront.

Where PTI has promoted high energy and glamorous political rallies, the PTI youth and first-time parliamentarians have been unable to appreciate the slow grinding of parliamentary struggle. As a result, youth that aspired for an umbrella of institutionalised political values has only been introduced to a short-term campaign culture and appears clueless and frustrated in the face of calculated and deliberate manoeuvres of their more seasoned opponents. Short of numbers to change the political landscape, opposition can only make an impact by leveraging issues that resonate with public sentiment, and with appropriately timed and weighted response, PTI can impose a much higher pressure than the absolute numbers in represents.

Every few months, there has been an opportunity to take on the government but PTI’s focus— distracted by rigging— has lacked conviction and calculation on all other issues. Take energy for instance. Starting from an unaudited payment of Rs. 500 bn to IPPs that offered no respite to the failure of Nandipur, an expensive showcase solar plant, stalling of Iran gas pipeline while importing LNG from Qatar at an unknown price - the incompetence has been directly proportional to the seriousness of the crisis. Or the economy, where expensive Eurobond funds with long-term debt repercussions have been spent on short-term projects, the exchange rate is being managed by a risky intervention in the forex market, the tax base has not increased, and the overall focus has been on ‘balance-sheet economics’ as opposed to growth economics. Or foreign policy, where PTI with two full-time former foreign ministers, has been unable to give a tough time to a government that is extremely vulnerable and diffident in its foreign policy. Cashing out on these missed opportunities would have accumulated a far higher political capital for PTI.

Since the Dharna days, PTI has lost differentiation between opposing PML-N’s policies and opposing PML-N. Opposing policies is multidimensional, opposing a political party on a single point is not. The point on rigging has been made. There is still time to re-strategise and widen the front-end so that PTI’s success or failure is not defined by a single point agenda. And, PTI should remember— as it tries to keep the historical record straight— that history, too, will be setting PTI’s record straight.

he writer is undertaking graduate coursework in Economics at New York University, USA.