This article was published in Dawn on February 26, 2020 and is available at the following link
It is one of those times in our political history when the opposition is at least numerically very strong in the parliament and provincial assemblies. In the National Assembly, opposition parties hold 146 or 46 percent of the total 342 seats. The opposition commands a majority in the Senate, whereas it is just a breath away from securing a majority in the Punjab Assembly.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is one of the main opposition parties in parliament, rules southern Sindh province. The powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the parliament was headed by Leader of the Opposition and now by his nominee.
Leader of the Opposition plays an important role in such high-level appointments as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), the Election Commission Members and Chairman of the National Accountability Bureau. The post also enjoys the status and perks of a Federal Minister including, of course, a residence in the Ministers’ Enclave. All these factors make the opposition a lot more important today than, say a decade ago, and therefore is a formidable force within the power matrix of Pakistan. The opposition has the responsibility and the power to play an effective role in keeping the government in check and setting the legislative agenda of the country. How effectively is today’s opposition discharging its responsibilities?
One must concede that a series of court cases, NAB investigations, imprisonments and, in the case of PML-N, the conviction of top leaders has nearly paralyzed the two main opposition parties of the country. A number of top leaders of both PML-N and PPP are out of prison on bail and a perception has been successfully created that any ‘hard-line policy,’ which may be translated as effective performance by the opposition, can lead to the cancellation of the bails.
On top of the paralysis, the initial unity of the main opposition parties seems to be in shambles. First, the PMLN and PPP refused to support JUIF’s march on Islamabad and later Fazalur Rehman repeatedly blamed these parties in public to have compromised. Lately, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari criticised PMLN Chief Nawaz Sharif by branding him a ‘selected’ Prime Minister.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Not only that, the top leadership is not issuing critical statements, and the so-called hawks among them like Mariam Nawaz, are not even using social media. Both coercion by the authorities and the resulting extent of retreat by the opposition is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. Although there have been much greater pressures on political parties and leaders in the past, the art of arm-twisting seems to have been perfected this time to a point that most of the pressures (and probably inducements too) are not even visible. Public reaction and protest, therefore, has also not spilled over to the streets. A manifestation of this ‘self-restraint’ on the part of the two main opposition parties was their dissociation from Fazalur Rehman’s Azadi March and ‘dharna’ in Islamabad in November last year.
The paralysis of the opposition could not be more vivid than in the case of their failed no-confidence motion against the Chairman of the Senate when a number of Opposition Senators did not vote in line with their parties’ stand and therefore, despite holding a clear majority in the house, the motion was defeated.
The decision by both PMLN and PPP to support the quick passage of government bills formalizing the extension in the service of the armed forces’ chiefs is another case in point.
The parties even failed to debate the bills effectively within the parliament and in their respective party structures. PPP, which had initially come up with some sensible amendments to the bill, quickly capitulated and withdrew the amendments.
On top of the paralysis, the initial unity of the main opposition parties seems to be in shambles. First, the PMLN and PPP refused to support JUIF’s march on Islamabad and later Fazalur Rehman repeatedly blamed these parties in public to have compromised. Lately, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari criticised PMLN Chief Nawaz Sharif by branding him a ‘selected’ Prime Minister like Imran Khan. These emerging fissures in opposition ranks will further cripple the opposition.
Shahbaz Sharif, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, has been out of the country for more than three months due to the precarious health of his elder brother and PMLN leader, Nawaz Sharif. Midway through his foreign stay, he resigned as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Earlier, he was out of the country for two months because of his own health issues. His continued absence, despite justification, is further weakening the opposition both inside the parliament and outside.
As the performance and policies of PTI governments in the centre and the provinces increasingly come under strong criticism by the people, the opposition seems to be failing in articulating public sentiments both in the parliament and outside. If not addressed in time, this widening disconnect between people and the opposition may lead to a political vacuum in the country which may suck in some unexpected political payer into the arena.