NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 04

The opposition’s dilemma

Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s call for a “long march” has widened fissures in the opposition. Two mainstream opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), are not willing to be led by a religious party while they themselves are not in a position to launch a movement against the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The PPP has clearly told Fazlur Rehman that it cannot become part of his agitation against the government because it is against the politics of religion. On the other hand, the PML-N is using different pretexts to skip the agitation. The PML-N and PPP leaders also fear the movement can derail democracy in the country and instead expedite the accountability process, which is going on slowly in the democratic setup. Besides internal reasons, the main opposition parties cannot be seen in the world as part of a religious party’s agitation, based on the personal agenda of its leader, who is fighting for the survival of his party after facing oblivion in the last two elections. Religious parties face a bleak future in Pakistan as their seats in the parliament are decreasing in every election. However, the JUI-F and Fazlur Rehman are not wiling to accept the reality.

The JUI-F’s call for agitation has created serious rifts among the opposition parties, which had formed a grand alliance after the election and threatened to give a hard time to the government inside and outside the parliament. According to media reports, the relationship between the JUI-F and the PPP has started turning sour after the latter refused to join its proposed “long march,” with leaders from both parties accusing each other of playing politics on the matter. However, PPP leaders are still showing some restraint and not coming out with a direct attack on Fazlur Rehman or other party leaders, but JUI-F Information Secretary Hafiz Hussain Ahmed has openly criticised the PPP over its stance on the issue. “The PPP has double standard. On one hand, it considers our long march unconstitutional and illegal and on the other, it is extending moral and political support to our protest,” he told the media. “The problem with the PPP is that those who are in jail want to come out and those who are out of jail do not want to go to jails,” he quipped. When asked about the PPP’s allegation that the JUI-F leadership was using the “religion card” during the planned anti-government protest, he said the JUI-F had never criticised the PPP for using the “Sindh card” in politics.

It is said the JUI-F leadership is unhappy with PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto over his remarks about their planned movement. Addressing a news conference few weeks ago, he had announced that he was not participating in the JUI-F’s sit-in as he did not want to become a “Moulvi”. He had also ruled out the possibility of his party joining the march. Announcing his party’s “moral support” for the JUI-F’s march, he said how he could believe that the military leadership would not play the same role which it had played during the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) movement that led to the imposition of martial law in 1977.

Media reports say Fazlur Rehman, who enjoys equally good relations with former President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had recently made an attempt to arrange a meeting between the two leaders, but his efforts failed. He also called on PML-N President and Opposition Leader in National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif twice to discuss modalities for his movement against the government. However, he failed to convince the PML-N leader to join his agitation.

According to another report, the PML-N has requested the JUI-F to delay its movement for few weeks. The PML-N wants some time to mobilise its workers for the movement. It has asked the JUI-F head to hold the protest in November instead of October. Analysts say the PML-N is using delaying tactics only, because it has no street power, though it has a large number of voters in the Punjab. It only aims to get a better deal from powers that be, they claim.

According to Fazlur Rehman, he has the ability to organise a “long march” on Islamabad. He claims to bring over 1.5m people to the streets, even if other opposition parties refuse to join him. He also warned that his party would paralyse the whole country if the government used force to stop the march. He claims the PTI government is “illegal and incapable” and overthrowing it would be in the country’s interest.

Fazlur Rehman’s sole agenda is fresh elections, which look impossible at the time. Even if they are held, he may not be able to win more than a dozen seats. Only the PPP and the PML-N can form a government, if elections are held. Fazlur Rehman will be happy with a post of minister for himself and few party leaders in their government.

Critics say the PPP and the PML-N want to appease some powers and take some favours for them by not joining the protest. They are trying to use Fazlur Rehman as a bargaining chip.

Now the question is: what will the government’s strategy on the issue? Will it allow Fazlur Rehman and his party to reach Islamabad or stop them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, their political stronghold? If the government allows him to reach the capital, it will create a mess. The government will deal with them with an iron hand as it cannot create an impression in the outside world that Pakistan can be held hostage by a handful of religious activists for their personal agenda. Most probably, the government will stop them from leaving Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.