Several Pakistani political parties opposed to the government of Imran Khan are getting together — again — to plan its ouster from power.
The effort and its stated aim are boringly familiar. In the past two years the parties, a motley crew of big and small national, regional and religious groups, have attempted to stitch together an alliance to cause the government’s downfall, but have not gone beyond staging temporary shows of sound and fury signifying nothing.
- Look: Why Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan makes 22 foreign trips to 11 countries in just 16 months
- Look: Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed in Pakistan with Imran Khan
- Pictures: Look how Pakistan’s Azadi March protestors feel at home in Islamabad
- Imran Khan: 10 lesser known facts of the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan
And this despite the fact that the Imran government is an object of widespread public anger and contempt on account of its poor economic performance that has caused millions of job losses and ruination to businesses.
Imran Khan thrives on this unwavering support and he wears it like a badge of honour on his chest by repeatedly suggesting that he and the Army are both on the same page
Its track record in delivering on its promises — the more ironic of which include provision of ten million of jobs and five million housing units — has been pathetic so far, to the say the least.
Even the most generous projections about the state of the economy forecast tough years ahead with the projected growth remaining under a dismal 3 per cent.
This should translate into the Opposition’s political advantage since the rising public frustration is a tinder box waiting for the slightest of ignitions to explode.
This has not happened. As a result, the combined opposition’s threats now ring hollow to prime minister Imran Khan’s political team that takes great pleasure in daring the opponents to walk the talk. The inefficiency of the Opposition is partly grounded in different political agendas of its components.
The two big parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the People’s Party, have their heads caught in the net of a hugely controversial yet legally potent accountability drive led by the National Accountability Bureau.
Literally, anyone who is politically someone in the ranks of the two parties has been trumped by a ruthless series of arrests, incarcerations, court appearances, investigations, and formal charges.
Of the two, the Sharif family is the more favourite punching bag of the prime minister since it has its strongest political base in the Punjab, the largest of the four provinces and politically the most central to forming government at the Centre.
PML-N’s party head Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shehbaz Sharif and their children are all caught up in court cases. Nawaz Sharif is facing lifelong disqualification and long imprisonment sentences.
Charges against the political opposition
The story is no different for the People’s Party whose co-chairperson former president Asif Zardari, his sister and their close associates are dragged to the courts every second week on diverse charges related to embezzlement and money laundering.
These two parties are unclear on how far they should go in combating their tormentors because each move they make causes the government to tighten the noose of accountability an inch tighter.
They both have fought shy of agitating the street and have instead been holding press conferences and speaking hard words that break no bones.
This alienates their more eager but smaller partners in political arms like the religio-political Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Imran’s fiercest critic, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose much-publicised street march last year to lay a till-government-resignation-siege on Islamabad collapsed around his ears as both the bigger parties refused to lend him a helping hand.
Since then the Opposition’s ranks have only agreed to disagree on the intensity of their onslaught. A house thus divided on its core objective isn’t a force to reckon to with for the government.
But a more important reason for a failing and flailing opposition is the Army’s ubiquitous and unambiguous support to Imran Khan and its visceral aversion to the idea of the return to power of either the PML-N or the PPP.
Two weeks ago Shaikh Rashid, a federal minister, brought much clarity to this part of the political story when he said that the General Qamar Bajwa, the present army chief, does not want the Sharifs or the Zardaris to return to power and therefore Imran Khan would continue to rule the roost for his term that ends three years from now.
No one from the Army contradicted the statement, which at any rate had highlighted Pakistan’s worst kept secret.
Military backing of prime minister
The Army’s support to Imran Khan predates Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from power. The elaborate judicial cloak that covered the Panama Leaks related charges against Sharif could barely hide the daggers that were already held to the throat of the former prime minister.
From the Opposition’s point of view the Army’s deployment in holding free and fair elections in 2018 — a year after Nawaz’s judicial disqualification from power — had the exact opposite effect — it led to widespread charges of organised rigging to the advantage of Imran’s party.
The Army resolutely denies these charges and so does the government but this has not prevented the prevailing political arrangement from being equated with a puppet show whose strings and the puppeteering hand is too visible for plausible deniability.
Imran Khan thrives on this unwavering support and he wears it like a badge of honour on his chest by repeatedly suggesting that he and the Army are both on the same page.
He has gone out of his way to keep the mighty generals in good humour by giving them a lead role in all spheres of national life including the economy and business, by meeting all their budgetary demands, and never forgetting to praise and shine the brass.
His latest gesture of good behaviour was refusal to accept the resignation of his special assistant on information, Asif Saleem Bajwa (no relation of the army chief) whose family assets and investments in the US were highlighted in a scandalous social media story.
Imran, who had chucked out his previous adviser, Firdous Ashaq Awan, in the same position on the mere suspicion of financial bungling (still unproven) asked the controversial retd general to continue with his assignment and tellingly mentioned in an interview how some people wanted his relations with the Army to sour, which he won’t allow.
General retd Asim Salim, who also heads the powerful China Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (at present in legal limbo since the ordinance midwifing its birth has lapsed) is back in the saddle and the reporter who filed the story has been tweeting about growing threats to his life.
It is counterintuitive to think that the Army would want such a pliant civilian government to be replaced by the PPP and the PML-N. Imran Khan relishes this fact because this sustains him in power.
The Opposition also realises that it is pitted against not just a government but forces of the state whose track record of managing national politics could make Machiavelli modify the Prince. It does not want to fight a fight it cannot win.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12