The parliament is in, the Prime Minister has been elected and a cabinet (or at least half of one) has been sworn in. The treasury benches seem content for now; after waiting for 22 years, anyone behind Imran Khan knows that in his greatest hour, rocking the boat will be of no use to anyone in the PTI camp. The contentment is visible at all levels, and for now, things look good for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI). With the added lure of additional ministers to be chosen for the federal cabinet, and the leadership of the Punjab government – beyond the Chief Minister – yet to be announced, members of PTI know that they defected to this party for a reason, and that reason is essentially the next five years in power. When this initial euphoria dies down is anyone’s guess, however, PTI is not the party that should fear major upheavals over the course of this term - it is the opposition that has to be wary.
The elder Sharif brother is in jail, the younger Sharif brother is in parliament and their party is currently in all sorts of dire straits if the speaker and Prime Minister elections in both the National and Punjab Assembly are anything to go by. Just how well the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) can handle being in opposition is anyone’s guess; the first few showings have not been positive. Sure, the first protest was necessary, but what happens now? Where does the PML-N go from here? Will Mr Sharif always be willing to play a constructive role in opposition, day in day out, for the next five years?
A lot of what goes on in the opposition benches happens behind closed doors, and in the game of intrigue, alliance-building and biding your time, Shehbaz Sharif’s party does not look like it is going to do well, when compared to the third most major player in parliament, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP). While both these and a host of other small parties form the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), the name is an eyewash, because there is nothing overtly grand or democratic, and there is not much of an alliance either.
The blame for the lack of a functional alliance however, should not be placed on PML-N; it is PPP that has already thrown a spanner in the works. The outcome of initial meetings established the fielding of candidates for important positions in the National Assembly; all members of the alliance – PPP and PML-N included – agreed that the position of house speaker would be contested by a PPP nominee while PML-N would get to choose the candidate for Prime Minister.
Although Syed Khurshid Shah lost in the alliance’s bid to get him nominated as speaker of the house, the fact that he managed to bag over 140 votes tells us that PML-N held its end of the bargain. As far as nominees for the post of premiership were concerned, it was all but established that the PML-N would choose Shehbaz Sharif to contest the election for premiership against Imran Khan. After all, PML-N is a one family party and this is the first time the younger Sharif brother did not have to let his older brother bask under the spotlight while he worked quietly in the shadows. Did the PPP seriously expect anything else from the PML-N?
Reports before the election of the Prime Minister in the NA alluded to pressure being exerted on the PPP leadership, both internally and externally, to not vote for Shehbaz Sharif, and this is exactly what ended up happening. The party abstained, mostly on some cooked up excuses of verbal attacks by Shehbaz Sharif against PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari and PML-N was left without a leg to stand on. Are we really expected to believe that politicians with notoriously short memory spans and thick skins were bothered by attacks made against Mr Zardari in the past? Would PPP have voted if PML-N chose another candidate?
Then of course, there is the odd setting in the Punjab Assembly. A party that had a majority is forced to sit on the opposition benches because the independents flocked to PTI in droves. Here as well, PPP had the option to side with PML-N in opposition to PTI, and instead, it announced that it would not form a government with PML-N and would sit on the opposition benches. To be fair, PPP had already established this, but the decision to abstain once more in the speaker elections tells us that PML-N will get no favours from PPP.
And now we have an awkward situation with the presidential candidate. Not only has PPP refused to vote for any PML-N candidate so far – for any post – they have also unilaterally propped up a candidate for presidential elections in Aitzaz Ahsan. Sure, PPP says it is still approaching parties to agree on its candidate, but the action alone speaks volumes.
The PML-N in response, has decided to call a multi-party conference to select a candidate for the presidential elections. But from the initial reaction to Ahsan’s candidature it is all but clear that PML-N will not want to vote for him. To make things worse, PTI is looking to fan the flames, with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi stating that withdrawing Ashan’s name would be tantamount to “burying ideological politics”, the brand that PPP says it practices.
The more we look at it, the more it seems like this alliance was created to keep PML-N out of the corridors of power, instead of offering up stiff opposition to PTI. If anything, PPP is looking to actively try and clear the path for PTI to rule unfettered, while PML-N leaders scramble to preserve their party and fight court cases of corruption. Meanwhile, the case against Asif Ali Zardari is not gaining traction the way Nawaz Sharif’s did, nor is it moving at the same pace as those lodged against PML-N leaders. A conspiracy theorist would argue that PPP’s opposition to PML-N when they both sit on the same bench is motivated by the urge for self-preservation and for once, they might not be too far off the mark.
None of this is new however; we have seen all of this before. PPP was dubbed the ‘friendly opposition’ by PTI during the last term for not confronting PML-N head-on regarding issues they disagreed on. In the centre, we did not see much beyond condemnations issued by PPP leaders in the Assembly; PTI in contrast was on the streets, opposing everything the government did. But there was no GDA like system in the last term, so PPP could be forgiven for choosing to go its own way. Are we to expect a repeat performance from PPP at the federal level?
PTI has made its move and has landed itself a government in the centre and two provinces while it is part of a coalition government in the third. If it makes no major mistakes and delivers on even a fraction of all that was promised, we might see it win comfortably in the next general elections as well. PPP has the province it always does and is currently keeping all of its cards close to its chest. PML-N in contrast, has seats on opposition benches but no province and no clear plan with how to deal with PTI and rebuild the party in anticipation for the next elections in five years. The alliance at this point, seems to be doing more harm than good to PML-N and its chances.
The writer is a former member of staff.