The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Why Can’t Pakistan’s Opposition Parties Remove the Khan Government?

Opposition political parties in Pakistan cannot topple the current government unless they are ready to anger the country’s powerful military. 

Umair Jamal
Why Can’t Pakistan’s Opposition Parties Remove the Khan Government?

Radical cleric and leader of Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman, center, waves to his supporters with opposition parties leader Shahbaz Sharif, right, and Nayar Bukhari during an anti-government march, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

On Monday, Pakistan’s main opposition parties announced an All Parties Conference (APC) after Eid al-Adha to formulate a joint strategy to remove the current political party from power.

The decision by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to lead anti-government agitation comes after years of preparation. However, the real question is whether the parties can dislodge the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, even if they launch a joint front.

This is not the first time that opposition parties have decided to launch anti-government protests. In May 2019, the heads of both parties made a similar declaration, citing growing inflation as a key reason for their agitation against the government. However, the PML-N and the PPP didn’t make a move on their announcement and rather decided to bring a motion to remove the ruling party’s chairman in the upper house of Parliament. The motion failed to remove the chairman of the Senate even after both parties had a clear majority. Following the failure of the motion, the PML-N accused the PPP of colluding with the security establishment to gain political favor. 

In October 2019, the PPP and the PML-N, in coordination with the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), once again announced they would mobilize the public against the government. That round of agitation was framed around a sit-in the capital, supposed to last until Prime Minister Imran Khan tendered his resignation. Once the agitation got underway, the PPP and the PML-N’s reluctance to take further action became obvious; JUI-F’s leadership and workers were left alone in the capital. Khan didn’t resign.

In February 2020, the PPP and the PML-N yet again announced a phase of anti-government protests. Fast forward to July 2020 and another movement is being planned by the opposition parties to topple the government.

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Clearly, the opposition’s efforts to form a joint front against the government remain marred by trust issues and other conflicting personal and party interests. In Pakistan’s politics, agitation against elected governments generally happens due to either the interference of undemocratic forces or an opposition party’s inability to ward off institutional pressures and gain favors from institutions that matter in the country.

In the current case, the PML-N and PPP’s leaders are facing serious allegations of corruption. For more than a year, both parties have sought relief from the government and its supporters in the security establishment regarding growing pressure from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the institution leading investigations against the two parties. This is one of the reasons that the PML-N and the PPP have not moved against the ruling party beyond threats of leading an agitation. 

However, the PPP and the PML-N have not received any relief and if anything, the government has pushed for a stern approach to bring both parties to “justice.” By now, it has become clear to the PML-N and the PPP that as long as the current government remains in office, their chances of gaining political relief are nil. 

In the backdrop of this understanding comes another announcement to agitate after Eid al-Adha. However, the latest announcement is unlikely to produce anything significant when the parties do not share ideological interests and are divided internally over the issue. The alliance between the two parties is merely glued together by virtue of individual electoral interests and an intent to survive the current accountability campaign against them both.

The new alliance has already fractured, with PPP leaders accusing the PML-N leadership of undermining the pact. The current president of the PML-N and the opposition leader in the National Assembly, Shahbaz Sharif, has refused to join the all parties huddle after Eid. It is well known that Sharif has good ties with Pakistan’s security establishment. Understandably, his political faction within the PML-N doesn’t want to anger the military leadership by becoming a part of an anti-government agitation campaign.

This is not the first time that Sharif has refused to support PML-N factions that want an aggressive approach against the military-supported government of the PTI. Sharif’s halfhearted support for his brother and the founder of the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif, was visible when he arrived back in Pakistan in 2018. Sharif is also known to have undermined the PPP and PML-N alliance with the JUI-F to unseat Khan in November 2019. 

Sharif has again decided against lending support to any agitation movement to remove the current government. 

“After CoD [Charter of Democracy signed between Nawaz Sharif and late Benazir Bhutto in 2006] setback, it is clear that the PPP cannot and should not trust the PML-N,” said a senior PPP leader after finding out Shahbaz Sharif’s position on the issue. 

However, the PPP is also not new to such maneuvers: Last year, the PPP’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, undercut his commitment with the PML-N to remove the chairman of the Senate. Zardari used the deal’s threat to make an agreement with actors that support the current civilian setup and brought some political respite in Sindh province. The approach, however, strengthened the view that opposition parties in Pakistan are not interested in the question of good governance as long as they continue to get political relief.

In the current milieu, this means that the ruling party still enjoys the support of the national security establishment. And leading an action against the government could mean leading a movement against the military’s selection in the civilian domain. Adopting this approach could have serious implications for any party or leader’s political life in Pakistan.

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As of now, it remains unclear if any political party, including the PPP and the PML-N, are ready to take that route. Making statements for the removal of the government is one thing; it may not anger people in powerful places. Leading a nationwide agitation is an altogether different story. 

Arguably, both political parties are making another effort at using the threat of a potential alliance to strike a deal with the national security establishment. But any such respite is unlikely to come: With the question of the 18th amendment fate’s hanging in the balance, the costs of making a compromise with the government and its support base in the military have only gone up. The PPP and the PML-N will have to make some hard choices in the coming weeks and months.

The leaders of both political parties remain skeptical of each other in terms of who may end up making a deal first with the country’s national security establishment. Thus, the perpetual game of hide and seek by self-seeking politicians will continue to go on in the months to come.