As winters set in, a political storm is gathering momentum in Pakistan. Following the formation of Pakistani opposition parties’ anti-government coalition on September 20, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), political temperature has soared in Pakistan. Since then, both the government and PDM have hardened their respective positions, posturing to fight it out right down to the wire. The resulting political impasse has left Pakistan’s fledgling democratic system at a crossroads once again.

The PDM has announced a two-phased plan of countrywide protests and rallies, culminating in a long-march towards Islamabad in January 2021 to dislodge the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government for pushing the opposition parties against the wall on trumped-up graft charges.

To circumvent anticipated detentions ahead of the long-march, PDM’s constituent parties have decided to rotate its leadership positions. For the first phase, the chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-Fazal) Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman has been appointed as its first head. The former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Nawaz) and Fazal’s JUIF form PDM’s center of gravity. The PMLN would provide the political narrative through Nawaz’s firebrand speeches from London, while Fazal has street power to offer in the form of devout and diehard followers. Arguably, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is the weaker link in PDM’s coalition.

If Pakistan’s history is any guide, the PDM-like movements against sitting governments have produced mixed results. For instance, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) in the 1970s against then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto resulted in his ouster and imposition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law. On the contrary, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the 1980s against Zia and the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) in the 2000s against Pervez Musharraf failed. However, PDM is more like PNA and less like MRD and ARD. What further differentiates PDM from ARD and MRD is that a Punjab-based political party, the PMLN, has joined the anti-establishment politics for the first time. Historically, smaller provinces have spearheaded this brand of politics in Pakistan. This can potentially be a game-changer. However, the PMLN, for most of its lifespan, has remained a pro-status quo party.

The PDM’s agenda and plan of action have the following three inherent weaknesses.

First, notwithstanding PDM’s loud rhetoric, its narrative and demands are self-contradictory. Though the PDM asks for a fair election without military supervision preceded by electoral reforms and amendments in the accountability laws, it rules out negotiations with the PTI government. By eliminating the middle ground, the required reforms cannot be achieved.

Second, the PDM’s anti-military bombast has not only foreclosed the possibility of an in-house change but bridged PTI’s differences with the military and its coalition partner in Punjab, the PMLQ. The PMLQ, which was ready to support the opposition’s no-confidence motion against Khan for an in-house change, would now be reluctant to be identified with PDM, an anti-military coalition.

Finally, to force an early election, the opposition parties would have to resign from Pakistan’s provincial and national assemblies. While PDM has considered joint resignations as one possible option, it lacks consensus and clarity. For instance, JUIF advocates immediate resignations to undermine the government and put further pressure through rallies and the long march. The PMLN is also in favour of resignations but as an option of last resort. On the contrary, the PPP, which rules the Sindh province and has stakes in the system, has an ambiguous stance on resignations.

Divisions and suspicions have already emerged in PDM following the PMLN leader Khawaja Asif’s statement that he does not trust the PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari. Though Nawaz tried to paper over the differences by terming Asif’s statement as his personal opinion and asking him to tender an apology, seemingly the damage has been done.

PDM’s protest call on account of popular unrest over rising inflation, massive unemployment, poverty and slowing economy might attract a positive public response. Gallup Pakistan’s public opinion survey conducted in March showed that around 66 percent of Pakistanis were dissatisfied with PTI’s performance, while as many as 59 percent considered its performance worse than the PMLN government.

As Pakistan’s democratic transition hangs in the balance, various political actors on both sides of the political divide should tone down their political rhetoric and hardened positions. They should return to the parliament to reform electoral and accountability laws and iron out their differences within the constitutional boundaries. Never once in Pakistan’s troubled constitutional history, an elected prime minister has completed the five-year term. The coming four months would determine if Imran Khan’s fate would be the same or otherwise.