It sounds like the setup to a bad joke. A former president, a Canadian-Pakistani cleric, and a legendary cricket captain walk on to a stage. Except, this actually happened earlier this week, when long-time political frenemies Asif Zardari, Tahir-ul-Qadri, and Imran Khan descended upon Lahore’s Charing Cross to protest against the government. Ostensibly brought together by a common thirst for justice and accountability in the Model Town Incident (when 14 PAT workers were killed by the police in 2014), the three leaders took the opportunity to lambast the PML-N for a variety of reasons, ranging from the party’s alleged corruption and incompetence to its inability to find and punish the perpetrator of the rape and murder of seven-year-old Zainab in Kasur last week. However, all the rousing rhetoric and spittle-flecked invective that was hurled on stage by the leaders and their supporters could not mask what was presumably an uncomfortable truth; despite the fallout from the Panama Case and months of relentless campaigning against the PML-N, the combined forces of the PAT, PPP, and PTI could muster a crowd that, by Pakistan’s standards, was of marginal significance at best. Indeed, the commentariat was quick to pronounce the entire event a failure and the lead participants themselves have remained uncharacteristically reticent about the future of their ‘alliance’.

Before examining the potentialities and limitations of this latest configuration of opposition parties, it is important to remember the history shared by Zaradri, Qadri, and Khan. Who, for example, can forget the sight of Tahir-ul-Qadri perched upon a container in January 2013, when he led a ‘million-man’ sit-in of about 20,000 participants against the PPP government and its president, Asif Ali Zardari. Back then, Qadri was quite clear about what he thought of his political opponents, calling for the government to be toppled and for the ‘corrupt’ and ‘illegitimate’ rulers to be deposed. Zardari himself has long had similar things to say about Qadri, accusing him of being at the heart of conspiracies against Pakistan’s democratic dispensation. As for Imran Khan, his antipathy towards Zardari is well-known; as long ago as October 2017 he was busy calling Zardari the ‘pharaoh of Sindh’ and the ‘head of the corrupt mafia in Pakistan’, and has been railing against the PPP for as long as he has been involved in politics.

It is true that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but it is worth asking what it is that could bring three leaders who evidently loathe each other together as part of a protest movement. At the outset, claims that this is all about justice for the victims of the Model Town Incident are simply ludicrous. What happened on that day was undoubtedly a tragedy and Justice Ali Baqar Najafi’s report into the incident rightly pins the blame for the deaths on the police and the government (even if it stops short of attributing responsibility to any individuals). That the PML-N should be held accountable for those deaths is irrefutable, and in a different kind of country the resignations of the ministers and police officials involved would have been received as a matter of course. However, it should not be forgotten that Tahir-ul-Qadri and his party have essentially remained silent about this affair for the better part of three years, and it seems more than a little opportunistic for the issue to now be raised on the even of an election in which the opponents of an embattled incumbent government are now smelling blood. Similarly, Imran Khan and Zardari have also had very little to say on this matter, and their sudden concern for the victims of the Model Town Incident appears to be more than a little cynical and disingenuous.

What, then, underpins this unlikeliest of political alliances? Simply put, the electoral logic behind it is arguably sound. As matters currently stand, there are some facts that must inevitably be factoring into the decisions being taken by all of Pakistan’s major parties. Firstly, for all the battering it has received these past few months, the PML-N is not as poorly positioned for the 2018 elections as some might believe. Despite evidence of internal cracks that threaten the party’s unity, support appears to be solidifying behind Shahbaz Sharif and the party’s extensive network of patronage in Punjab, as well as its ability to retain its core electable candidates, means that defeating it still poses a formidable challenge. At the same time, the PPP remains a shell of its former self, unlikely to win much support outside of Sindh, and while the PTI might be able to attract more support outside of KPK in this next round of elections, it is far from clear that it will be able to supplant the PML-N as the largest party in parliament, let alone form a government on its own. Finally, while Qadri’s PAT has always been electorally marginal, it is interesting to see how it nonetheless constitutes precisely the kind of religion-based party that could, at some level, tap into the reservoirs of support that exist for newer political entrants like the TTYL and the MML.

Put together, and bearing in mind the political shenanigans currently taking place in Balochistan and Karachi, it is possible to see how a PTI-PPP-PAT alliance could form the basis for a relatively shaky coalition government at the federal level that, with the support of additional junior partners from Balochistan and Karachi, could be cobbled together to keep the PML-N out of power. It is a plan that is far from guaranteed success, but it is not necessarily the worst possible electoral strategy that could be adopted by these leaders and their parties. After all, their motivations have been clear from the very beginning; Imran Khan wants to be Prime Minister, Qadri reportedly held similar aspirations in the past and has repeatedly shown a willingness to work with the establishment (accused by many of working behind the scenes to pull these political strings), and Zardari is simply doing what he does best by compromising wherever necessary to remain politically relevant and powerful. If anything, the protest in Lahore this week simply shows that the pursuit of these goals trumps considerations of principle. This is unsurprising in Pakistan, but also sad; after all, the PTI rose to prominence pledging to change a dysfunctional status quo, as did the PPP when it promised to radically alter the power structure of Pakistan during its initial years in power four decades ago. All of that now stands sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.


n            The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.