Knight moves – Fahd Husain

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HOW does the opposition create space for itself?

After a flurry of activity this week, PML-N, PPP and JUI-F find themselves looking up at a mountain to scale. There are however genuine questions about the mountaineering skills of these parties as well as the equipment they carry with them. Good intentions alone are insufficient for the task at hand.

The space for the opposition is all set to shrink further in March. This is when the PTI and its allies gain a comfortable majority in the Senate and tighten their grip on both houses of parliament. The opposition can then cry itself hoarse but it will not be able to stop the PTI government from legislating whatever it wants to legislate. On the FATF bills we saw the opposition flex its parliamentary muscles in an attempt to block the government’s version of the bills. After March, it won’t have many muscles to flex. This is a vulnerable position to be in, but there is nothing much that the opposition can do at this stage to stop the government from gaining control of parliament in six months.

Or, in other words, whatever it can do it will have to do in the next six months. This is where the agitation plan comes in: rallies in October, November and December in major urban centres, followed by a long march to Islamabad in January. What can this feverish activity achieve? Let’s take stock.

In the coming week or two we will know if some key opposition leaders will be nabbed and thrown behind bars in various cases that are under process. If this happens, it will be obvious that the authorities are in no mood to allow the opposition to gather any momentum. The incarceration of important leaders will also signal that the government will create whatever obstacles it can to deprive the opposition of the opportunity to hold successful and well-attended rallies. These obstacles could include refusal of permission for venues, clamping of Section 144 and containerised resistance from the local administration wherever required.

If the leaders are not arrested and the countrywide programme of the opposition begins to unfold as planned, it will be important to gauge what is being said in speeches. Herein lies the source of ambiguity. Nawaz Sharif has laid out his party’s policy in clear terms: he wants to wrestle with the establishment and not Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, since the day he delivered his aggressive speech at the multiparty conference, very few — if any — among his party leaders have used the same tone and language against the establishment. Many are still shell-shocked. The demonstrations and rallies starting next month will be a test case. If the PML-N leadership ratchets up its rhetoric and follows the line and positioning of their leader, it will be clear that the party has decided to burn all its boats for now. This will be a big departure from the cautious policy followed by the party and it would signal that the PML-N is eyeing strategic goals that may not be held hostage to timelines.

However if Nawaz Sharif’s tone is not reflected in the rallies, it would suggest a dual play: framing the relationship with the establishment within the context of Nawaz’s speech but leveraging it as a bargaining tool for greater political space. It’s a gamble; or perhaps a game of chess.

In this game, Asif Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman could have different roles. Within the opposition’s Pakistan Democratic Movement, the JUI-F chief is the real hardliner. With little stakes in the system and personal grievances against PTI, he has been consistently advocating that the entire opposition should resign from parliament and force the government to call fresh elections. So far the maulana has not found much traction for his radical ideas. However after Nawaz Sharif’s speech, Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s relevance has increased within the PDM. He may now wield greater influence on the overall direction of the PDM given that PML-N’s policy now is closer to his position than that of PPP. In addition, JUI-F is expected to contribute significantly in terms of crowds and street power for PDM activities. This factor adds to his weight within the alliance and could create interesting dynamics within PDM.

Asif Zardari and his party are also on trial (literally and figuratively). Boxed in between the anti-establishment position of the PML-N and the hardline do-or-die politics of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, PPP leaders like Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari may need to calibrate their position delicately. They have a government to run, and protect, and an alliance to nurture. The PPP leadership also knows that if it cannot find the perfect sweet spot for this balance, it could end up with the worst of both worlds: a weakened government and a weakened PDM. Asif Zardari and Bilawal do not have the luxury of time. October is less than a week away.

And what of Prime Minister Imran Khan? His silence cannot hide his glee. In one week he has seen his staunchest opponent attack his staunchest ally thereby severely reducing the chances of the opponent gaining space from the ally at his expense. He knows time is on his side. He just has to manage the next six months without doing anything — or becoming the cause of something — that inflames the situation to an uncontrollable level. This means he would want to keep the opposition under maximum pressure while minimising the chances of any untoward incident at PDM’s public engagement events. This is easier said than done. Violence has its own unintended consequences.

It is a battle for space and time. The opposition has neither. What it does have now is a platform that can amplify its politics and magnify its coordinated activities. But are these potent enough to deliver what the opposition really wants?