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Pakistan Opposition Alliance Unravels Over Strategy Dispute

Pakistan Democratic Movement leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman along with Maryam Nawaz, the leader of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) in a news conference in Karachi in Otocber 2020.
Pakistan Democratic Movement leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman along with Maryam Nawaz, the leader of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) in a news conference in Karachi in Otocber 2020.

Nearly six months after major opposition political parties in Pakistan coalesced in a grand coalition to cleanse politics of military interference by pushing Prime Minster Imran Khan out of power, their alliance appears to be disintegrating.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the formal name of the alliance that emerged in September, has postponed its much-touted protest March on Islamabad this week after one major party refused to joined the remaining nine in resigning from the parliament, a move intended to force Khan to relinquish power and spur new elections.

“The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had reservations over the issue of resignations and has asked for some time to consult with its central executive committee,” PDM leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman told journalists late on March 16 after a daylong meeting whose deliberations trickled to the Pakistani media, where hardlines screamed of a widening rift and the PPP leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly argued against resigning from the parliament.

“We will be awaiting their decisions, but until then the Long March protest planned for March 26 should be considered postponed,” said Rahman, leader of Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI).

The development exposed a deep rift among PDM leaders, whose parties recently scored some political victories when they joined forces against Khan’s in this month’s indirect Senate elections and won most of the byelections across Pakistan earlier this year.

The alliance had postponed the issue of resignations in December after they reportedly accepted Zardari’s push to postpone it until after the Senate vote. Rehman’s JUI and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) are now unlikely to resign from the parliament or resort to street protests to oust Khan even while claiming that the country’s military rigged the 2018 parliamentary vote to propel him into power.

Pakistan’s powerful military, however, denies interfering in the country’s politics.

Has Khan Survived?

Khan’s cabinet members gloated over the PDM’s split. “The PDM is a collection of political orphans,” Fawad Chaudhry, Khan’s science and technology minister, told journalists. “People who have no stake in the [current political] system are clamoring for resignations,” he added.

“The Pakistan Peoples Party is a stakeholder in this system,” Chaudhry said. The PPP heads the provincial government in the southern province of Sindh. Its leaders are challenging the election for Senate chairman, an important constitutional position that could see one of its top leaders and former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani head the upper house of the parliament.

In recent weeks, the government was rattled when Khan’s party lost an important vote in the National Assembly. In an upset Gilani defeated his finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh. The move forced Khan to seek a vote of confidence to show he still holds a majority sway in the lower house.

“PDM’s unity has disintegrated,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi tweeted. “While fighting a war for their interested, the opposition parties have fallen out with each other,” he added in apparent jubilation over the rift, which is will provide a much-needed respite for Khan’s administration.

Fighting Within Parliament

PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is adamant the PDM should focus on removing Khan though a no-confidence vote. “The PDM’s struggle has entered the final phase as the government’s majority in the upper and lower houses of parliament has been exposed,” he told journalists on March 15.

But the mood within the PDM is less optimistic. In late September, the movement began with great fanfare when its leaders vowed to end “the state above the state,” which they claimed top army generals had created by controlling the levers of power through installing Khan in a rigged vote. “We cannot live in this country as slaves,” Rehaman told supports days after the PDM was formally launched on September 20.

In their vocal protest across Pakistan, the alliance of 10 parliamentary political parties -- many of whom are also electoral rivals -- showed a united front in promising a new era and vowing not to repeat past mistakes.

Competition between the PPP and PML-N defined the 1990s and returned to Pakistani politics following Sharif’s efforts to bring down the PPP’s government in 2011 after U.S. Special Forces killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a garrison town near Islamabad.

What Lies Ahead

A key part of the rift within the PDM appears to be a demand by Zardari who asked Sharif to abandon his exile in London and return to Pakistan to lead the PDM’s future agitation.

“The office-holders of the PML-N, its leaders, and its voters do not want to see the life of Nawaz Sharif in danger,” Sharif’s daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz told reporters as she confirmed the conversation. “The people of Pakistan, too, do not want this because we want to have a leader who is alive,” she added.

Most elected leaders in Pakistan were deposed by force in military coups. Some, like PPP leader and former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, were executed under what his supporters say were fabricated charges. Benazir Bhutto, his daughter and another PPP leader, was killed in a bomb blast in 2007. The high-stakes game between powerful generals and populist politicians has defined Pakistan’s political history for more than 70 years.

In the coming days and weeks, PDM leaders will scramble to bridge their wide differences. Their only hope now seems to be that a population hard done by economic hardship and repression might spark unprecedented protests, which will once more carry them to the corridors of power.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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