Why PPP will likely be the first to abandon the PDM ship
Since the creation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) last month, the political temperature in Pakistan has soared to levels not witnessed since the 2018 elections. The PDM rallies thus far have attracted decent crowds and the speeches – particularly Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the Gujranwala rally – have successfully captured the attention of the media. While PDM is so far the most potent challenge for the current government, such large multi-party opposition alliances are not new to Pakistan’s political landscape. A review of similar alliances from the last few decades can therefore provide insights into what the future might hold for PDM.
After months of negotiations, in early December 2000, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the then Pakistan Muslim League (PML), along with about a dozen other political parties, announced the creation of the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD). ARD was initially hailed as a watershed moment in Pakistan’s political history. It appeared that both PPP and PML had matured, and had buried the hatchet in the interest of safeguarding democracy in Pakistan. The optimism however turned out to be short lived. About a week after the creation of ARD, Nawaz Sharif quietly left for Saudi Arabia after what was later revealed to be a deal between him and the military government, facilitated by Pakistan’s “brotherly countries” in the Middle East. Clearly the secret negotiations that had led to Sharif’s release from prison and exile to the Suroor palace had been going on for months and the ARD was used as a bargaining chip in those negotiations.
In May of 2006, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto signed the Charter of Democracy (COD) in London. This was widely hailed as yet another historic moment in Pakistan’s struggle for democracy. Clause twenty-two of the COD specifically declared that none of the signatories would "solicit the support of military to come into power", yet only about a year after the signing of the COD, the US had successfully brokered a deal between Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. This deal, which is described by Condoleezza Rice in ample detail in her book “No Higher Honour” eventually led to the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) and the return of Benazir to Pakistan. This time, Benazir had successfully leveraged the opposition alliance to bargain a deal for her PPP.
After the return of democracy, COD violations became more routine. During the notorious Memogate scandal of 2012, Nawaz Sharif donned the black coat himself and became the establishment’s advocate, in a legal battle against the PPP government. While this was a shrewd political move with the national elections scheduled within a year, it certainly dealt a deathblow to the COD spirit, which forbade the signatories from soliciting the support of the military to “dislodge a democratic government”. Shahbaz Sharif, president of the PML-N recently revealed that prior to the 2018 elections, he was in close contact with the military establishment and a month before the elections was even finalizing the names of his cabinet ministers after being assured that would be the country’s next Prime Minister. As recently as early last month, Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz – who have been championing the narrative of ‘Vote Ko Izzat Do’ for several years – were trying to negotiate a settlement with the military establishment. Countless other instances can be quoted, but these should be sufficient to prove that the leading political parties forming the PDM are driven more by realpolitik than by lofty ideals of democracy and civilian supremacy.
Therefore, it is only a matter of time before one of the members of the PDM is able to successfully leverage the alliance to get a better deal for themselves. The party that has the highest stakes in the current dispensation and stands to gain the least in the event of a fresh election will settle for the least lucrative deal.
Of all the PDM member parties, PPP is the only one that has a stake in the current arrangement. In the event of mass resignations, PPP will lose the Sindh government while PML-N, Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F), Awami National Party (ANP), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) or any other PDM party will not lose anything even remotely close to a provincial government. In fact, while none of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Fazlur Rehman and Mahmood Achakzai are currently members of the Parliament, both Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto are members of the National Assembly. In the event of fresh elections, the most that PPP can expect to win is the Sindh government, if that. How does it make any sense then for the PPP to topple the current dispensation, lose its provincial government in the process, when the most it can gain in return is may be the same provincial government?
Secondly, one must remember that any chances of a PPP resurgence at the national level are contingent upon the party’s resurrection in Punjab. Bilawal addressing PML-N-hosted rallies in Punjab reminiscing about the glorious Shahbaz Sharif days does not help the party’s prospects in the next elections in Punjab. Whenever the next national elections happen, for PPP to have a realistic chance of leading the federal government, it will have to defeat PML-N (and PTI) in dozens of constituencies in Punjab. If Bilawal is seen to be in an alliance with the PML-N leading up to the next elections, what anti PM-LN narrative will the PPP candidates take to the voters in Punjab? Therefore, from a PPP standpoint the PDM is clearly not a long-term arrangement, because a long-term alliance with the PML-N will essentially eliminate any chances of a PPP revival in Punjab.
Thirdly, PPP’s liberal credentials will remain in question as long as the PDM is headed by Fazlur Rehman. During the JUI-F’s Islamabad sit in last year, Fazlur Rehman openly used hateful language against the Ahmadiyya community and the Sikhs of Pakistan while Bilawal accompanied him on the stage. This was perceived by many to be a dent to the PPP’s ideals of a more inclusive and pluralistic Pakistan. It is only a matter of time before the proverbial ‘Mazhab card’ is used again, and the only party that will lose votes on account of tacitly supporting this, will be the PPP.
Hence, the PPP has the least to gain from continuing to be a part of the PDM, and risks losing more than any other PDM party. The PPP is not a part of the PDM to topple the government, but to improve its bargaining position when negotiating a settlement with the government. Now it is up to the government to make an offer that the PPP can’t refuse, and fragment the PDM. Only time will tell if the final settlement leads to placating the PPP’s concerns about the eighteenth amendment, a resolution of the Bundal Island dispute favoring the PPP, more control over Karachi, a go-slow policy against the party’s top leadership, or a combination of these.