Leaders of the PDM share stage in Karachi

Whatever might be the outcome of the PDM, the political temperature in Pakistan is rising and the status quo seems to be unsustainable

An alliance of 11 opposition parties in Pakistan, called the Pakistan Democratic Movement is seeking not only to oust the PM Imran Khan government but also change the political status quo in the country. Will they succeed?

On Sunday, October 18th, the nascent alliance of Pakistan's Opposition parties held a massive rally in the port city of Karachi that vowed to oust Imran Khan from the prime minister's office and also called for accountability of sections of the establishment that allegedly enabled Khan's rise and eventual ascension on Islamabad's throne.

Last month, Pakistan's Opposition parties joined hands to oust the incumbent prime minister, Imran Khan. The motley group of political parties is together in an alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) that has a long list of demands primarily to address the democracy deficit, systemic imbalances as well as protecting human rights. The Opposition parties complain of being hounded by the federal agencies for corruption cases at the behest of PM Khan. They are also concerned about shrinking media freedom and increasing irrelevance of Parliament as Imran Khan's administration has been running much of its business through Ordinances and has a virtually non-existent relationship with the Opposition.

The PDM is being led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, a religiopolitical party, and the two mainstream parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). It took these parties more than a year to coalesce around a common agenda and in part, they have also been motivated by the failings of the Imran Khan government, the rising inflation and unemployment as Pakistan's economy is undergoing a major downturn.

The PMLN headed by the three-time elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif has also fielded the latter's daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who is now the public face of the party given her charisma and hard-hitting stance against both Imran Khan and his supporters in Pakistan's establishment. The PPP is now formally being led by late Benazir Bhutto's son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. PDM, therefore, is also a moment of intergenerational transfer of leadership in the two major dynastic parties.

The 'Target' Is Not Imran Khan

The PDM kicked off its campaign with a rally on Friday, October 16th, in Gujranwala, a populous city in Punjab's heartland, also the bastion of Nawaz Sharif's PMLN. Speaking to a rally of more than forty thousand people, former PM Nawaz Sharif not only lambasted the current government but named the army chief and the head of intelligence agencies for ousting his government through pressure on judges, media and manipulating the 2018 general election that brought Imran Khan to power.

Earlier, the elder Sharif had fired salvos against Pakistan's powerful military establishment but he had held himself back from naming names. The Friday speech by Nawaz Sharif at the PDM rally shocked everyone, including some within his party's top tiers. He did connect with his support base in Punjab as many sympathise with his judicial ouster in 2016 and consider it as engineered. While Sharif's speech was not shown on TV channels, the digital age and multiple YouTube channels and Facebook pages ensured that a large number of people in Pakistan saw that. The Press gave a muted coverage but the shots had been fired.

PM Imran Khan responded the next day and called Sharif a bootlicker of the military regime under Gen Zia ul Haq. Khan was not wrong. Nawaz Sharif was a protégé of the military in the 1980s and his coming of age is a baffling story of contemporary Pakistan. A few TV anchors openly called Sharif an 'Indian agent' and one even went as far to suggest that the officials of Indian High Commission in London wrote that speech for him. Sharif since late 2019 has been in London for medical treatment and his current exiled status has given him somewhat greater freedom to speak his mind.

The Gujranwala rally was a success and the newspaper Dawn's Islamabad editor termed it a rising tide. Maryam and Bilawal delivered impassioned speeches but Sharif's address overshadowed the entire event leaving commentators guessing what prompted Sharif to take such a stance. It is unprecedented for even the bravest of politicians and activists to name the incumbent military leadership. The establishment has not responded yet but the government ministers and spokespersons have and they consider Nawaz's speech as treasonous and tantamount to hurting Pakistan's national interest.

Guns Blazed In Karachi Too

The Sunday rally did not feature Nawaz Sharif's address. Commentators say that the Opposition alliance PDM may have considered the consequences of the continued frontal attacks. But the speakers on Sunday reiterated in more indirect terms the message that Sharif had conveyed to his support base.

Maryam Nawaz clarified that her father and party were not against the country's army and that they saluted all those guarding the frontiers and fighting the war[s] against terrorism. But she added that the individuals who transgressed were the real target of the PDM mobilization.

Bilawal Bhutto took on the government's mishandling of the economy. Inflation and poverty. In fact, the term 'selected' that has found some measure of popular currency was coined and used by Bilawal in parliament when the government was formed. The legitimacy of Imran Khan's government or the 'hybrid regime' (another term coined by senior journalist Kamran Khan though as a positive development) are now widely used on social media.

The 'Reaction'

Following the successful rallies, Monday morning witnessed the start of the much-anticipated 'reaction.' In the early hours of the morning, Capt. Safdar, the son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif, was arrested from his hotel room in Karachi. In recent weeks, Capt Safdar, also a former member of parliament, has been active and taking a hardline like his wife and father-in-law. On Sunday, he visited Jinnah's mausoleum in Karachi where he led the chanting of PMLN's slogan: Vote ko izzat do (respect the vote). The workers of PMLN also raised slogans in favour of Miss Fatima Jinnah who contested elections against Pakistan's first dictator Gen. Ayub Khan.

Political sloganeering is an offence under the law. Hamid Mir reported on Twitter that the Sindh Police ostensibly under pressure by Rangers stationed in Karachi and arrested Safdar. This development will affect the unity of the alliance as the Sindh province is ruled by the PPP.

What Lies Ahead

The unity of PDM will be tested in the weeks to come. The parties in the alliance have varying goals and it is not clear if all of them will stay the course. In general, such movements cannot succeed in Pakistan without the support of sections of the establishment. Currently, Imran Khan and establishment are on the same page, to cite an oft-repeated phrase by both power players. But this may not continue.

In the past year food inflation has increased at last by one third. Unemployment and growth figures are also disappointing not unlike the rest of the region. The economic decline had started prior to Covid. The people are easier to mobilise in the current circumstances. Furthermore, the gamble by Nawaz Sharif and the wily Maulana Fazl ur Rahman is to push the establishment on the defensive so that it distances from the Imran Khan government paving the way for political change.

It is unclear if there will be an immediate change. There is also the fear of crackdown that may halt the public mobilisation by the PDM. The month of November will be critical and by then all sides will show the cards they are playing with.

Whatever might be the outcome, the political temperature is rising and the status quo seems to be unsustainable.