NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 6

Opposition smells blood

The opposition alliance has announced rallies across the country against rising prices. It also plans to march on Islamabad, if external and internal conditions remain favourable. The initial aim of the so-called Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) was to dislodge the government when it was formed last year. The coalition has considerably weakened after the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP) left it. However, rising discontent among the public over skyrocketing prices and perceived rifts between the government and the establishment have provided it with another opportunity to revive itself and launch a movement against Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The alliance still faces many issues. Reports say PDM head Maulana Fazlur Rahman wants Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) legislators to resign from the National Assembly, Senate and Punjab Assembly, a condition which most PML-N MPs oppose. The PPP and the ANP had also quit the alliance over the issue. On the other hand, Maulana Fazl still believes the opposition’s movement against the government will not succeed without resignations from the assemblies. It appears that the PML-N will also leave the alliance and Maulana Fazl and his party would be left alone to hold a “long march” against the government.

It is clear that most PML-N MPs will defy their leadership and would not resign from the assemblies. On the other hand, the government will delay accepting their resignations through different tactics. With less than two years left to complete its term, the government is in a better position to foil the opposition’s plan for early elections. The PML-N, the major opposition party in the alliance, also faces serious rifts. It is visibly divided into two groups, one led by Maryam Nawaz and the other by Shehbaz Sharif. It manifested when US Charge d’affaires Angela Aggeler held separate meetings with PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif and Vice President Maryam Nawaz in Lahore recently. While there is no doubt about the two groups in the party, Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad has predicted that another faction will appear in the PML-N. According to him, the party will split into three factions ahead of the next election.

There is no doubt that the ruling party will miserably lose if elections are held now. People are annoyed at high prices and bad governance. The government has devised some plans to provide relief to people. Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a 40pc targeted subsidy for the poor on the purchase of essential food items. Under an ambitious Rs1.4 trillion Kamyab Pakistan Programme (KKP), the underprivileged segment would get targeted subsidies on wheat, flour, sugar and cooking oil. The government aims an inclusive sustainable growth setup to benefit all segments of society. Loans will be disbursed among 3.7 million households through microfinance banks and non-governmental organisations would facilitate people in their small businesses. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the government has adopted the “bottom-up approach” to benefit the low-income groups. Farmers will get interest-free loans under the Kamyab Kissan programme. Financing of up to Rs500,000 will be made for businesses. Financing on easy installments will be extended for the construction of houses under the Sasta Ghar scheme, besides linking successful skilled-based scholarship schemes and Sehat Insaf Card with the new programme.

The government has decided to provide subsidised petrol to motorcycle and rickshaw owners. Another round of stipend is being considered for less privileged people under the Ehsaas programme enabling them to get essential food items at comparatively reduced rates. The government also decided to cut general sales tax and customs duty by half and abolish two per cent additional customs duty on edible oil to reduce its price by Rs45-50 per kg.

According to Federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar, no immediate relief is expected in rising commodity prices and it could take at least five months for the abnormal hike in prices to head towards normalcy. “We hope people get relief soon, but according to experts the relief may not be visible immediately and actual improvement may be seen from March,” he told a press conference. Critics say the government has announced similar plans in the past but nothing worked and people continued to suffer because of high inflation and bad governance.

As the prices have reached a historic high, the opposition feels it can exploit the situation and force the government to step down. It is also encouraged by the perceived rift between the government and the establishment over the appointment of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director-general. The opposition and many analysts believe cordial relations between the government and the establishment have soured over the ISI DG issue. The opposition claims it would have ousted the government if the establishment had not protected it since its installation in 2018. It is yet to be seen if the situation has changed now.

The PTI government may not have performed to the satisfaction of the people but still there is no replacement for it in the country. The opposition is divided and its leaders are facing serious cases of corruption and money-laundering. The PPP has confined itself to Sindh while the PML-N is popular in Punjab only. The PTI had formed the government in 2018, when the country was facing the worst economic conditions of its history. It is also a fact that the whole world is facing the worst inflation after the onset of the pandemic. The government is also blamed for the plunging value of the Pakistan rupee against the US dollar, while it is a fact that the past governments had artificially kept the exchange rate high.