Will the opposition parties march together?


By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), has been busy for months, mobilizing his constituency to organize a million-man march to take the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government down. The date for the march has now been set for Oct. 27.
But even before the elected majority party could assume power last year, the Maulana had declared his political war on it. On the eve of the 2018 elections, when he saw the results not going in his favour, he invited all other opposition parties to a conference and proposed boycotting the Parliament by not taking oath of its membership. 
At the time, other conference participants convinced him not to leave the Parliament to the PTI and its allies. However, the two major opposition parties in the country, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), collaborated with him on weaving a narrative that the elections were rigged in favour of Prime Minister Imran Khan and resolved that they wouldn’t allow him to run the Parliament smoothly.
They acted according to plan during the maiden speech of the newly elected PM in Parliament, shouting him down. As a result, the treasury benches have been doing the same whenever leaders of the opposition parties have taken the floor to speak. Pakistani politics is intensely polarized along a new dimension, which involves the PTI and its allies on one side and the PMLN, PPP, JUI and their allies on the other.
The core propaganda themes of the opposition parties are: that the Prime Minister is ‘selected’ not elected, making a reference to the alleged role of Pakistan’s security forces in the last election, and that the government has proven itself to be incompetent. They cite inflation, currency devaluation, falling revenue collection and the adverse terms of the International Monetary Fund as evidence. While the PML-N in particular doesn’t want to join any action that might lead to an end of the democratic system in place, the PPP leadership is not averse to creating conditions that might cause a serious political crisis. The JUI-F appears to be on the extreme, as it says it will not settle for anything less than the removal of an ‘illegal’ government in power.

ISLAMABAD: Oct03- Chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman talking with Chairman Pakistan People’s Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari during a meeting at his residence in federal capital.

In the past, opposition parties have paralyzed sitting governments by organizing nation-wide demonstrations, and succeeded in kicking up political storms when they formed united political fronts. As the economy suffered, law and order would deteriorate, the scale of proactive and reactive political violence would increase, the military would intervene directly or indirectly to take power or arrange for new elections. Nobody should want a replay of those politics.
This is the reason the PMLN is weary of this option. It wants to evolve a common strategy that takes care to ensure no undemocratic forces take advantage of the political situation. The fact is that neither of the two main opposition political parties are prepared to expend their political capital on a game that could backfire easily. A failed attempt to bring the government down would certainly further weaken opposition parties, and strengthen the PTI and its allies.
There are three issues that have kept the opposition parties divided on launching their big march. The first, is the timing. The other opposition parties wanted to postpone it to later in the year, and behind the scenes, they are suspected of seeking a political ‘deal’ to get their top leaders out of jail, who face serious corruption charges. Second, is the issue of agenda. The PPP is not comfortable with bringing into the fold issues like blasphemy, implementation of Islamic law and the protection of the honour of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — the plank of the religious groups. Finally, there are serious differences over the purpose of the march. The two major parties don’t share the objectives of the JUI to remove the government by undemocratic means, and don’t think it’s possible.
It is still uncertain if the parties will march together. If it is a march by a lone party, it may generate a temporary furore, but the noise would likely subside to a long silence.
The major parties want the government to continue, but would like to keep the pressure on, maintain the narrative of ‘incompetence’ and wait for another opportunity, if political circumstances are to offer any. 
At this point, neither the political parties nor the public is prepared for a major political crisis, or fresh elections, as the country is pre-occupied with the plight of the people of Jammu and Kashmir facing a long, harsh blockade since Aug. 5. The JUI-F may face a barrage of accusations from the government when the march kicks off later this month, with questions arising about his timing, credentials and the objective of what he is up to. A lone fight will take him nowhere, even if politics in Pakistan do function by their own unique logic.

(The author Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais)