Supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party gathered to start an anti-government march in Karachi on Sunday. Thousands of supporters of the ultra-religious party are en route to Islamabad, the capital, farther north. Photo: AFP / Qaiser Khan / NurPhoto

Sitting on open ground in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, thousands of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam workers are charged up and full of energy despite the cold November nights. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman has successfully gathered the largest crowd Islamabad has witnessed in terms of political agitation. Fazal has emerged as a strong and real opposition leader. Irrespective of his far-right religious ideology, one needs to give him credit for putting on such a mammoth show of street power largely on his own. The two major opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), made sure that their workers’ presence in Fazal’s long march was minimal.

So despite leading a massive number of protesters to Islamabad and winning the backing of a faction of the establishment, Fazal has not succeeded in toppling the regime of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Though this battle was not really about securing Khan’s resignation – it was aimed at ending the political hegemony of the security establishment – it still could have yielded far better results had the two major opposition parties participated in full strength.

The frustration on Fazal’s face is evident, and it seems that after almost five days of leading the sit-in he wants a face-saving exit. Perhaps if PML-N and PPP would have thrown their weight behind Fazal the situation could have been very different. However, the dynamics of power politics are entirely different from those of ideological politics. It is not a coincidence that former president Asif Ali Zardari is lying in a VIP room in the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) Hospital. Zardari was suffering from diabetes and heart problems, but the authorities failed to move him to the hospital until it became evident that Fazal would march on Islamabad.

Maryam Nawaz, who was put behind bars without any conviction on very vague charges in the Chaudhry Sugar Mills case, was granted bail on Monday by the same court that has been delaying the hearing of her case without any solid reason. PML-N stalwart and ex-prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who is also believed to be a favorite candidate to replace Khan  if a no-confidence motion is presented in parliament, has also been moved to a hospital, and it is being speculated in the power corridors that soon other political prisoners will also be moved to hospitals or released on bail.

The establishment, which had been on the back foot and feeling the heat while thousands of Fazal’s supporters were chanting anti-Khan slogans, is out of the difficult times now, thanks to the pro-status-quo politics of PML-N and PPP that bailed out the establishment at the last moment. So the question arises, why did these two major parties that were the victims of the witch-hunt of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s accountability drive not even try to change the status quo by throwing the establishment out of power?

No one among the major political parties wants to change the system as there is no guarantee that bringing in genuine democracy, where the educated middle class has a genuine say, will benefit these power players

The answer is very simple: The current system that is tailor-made for the benefit of the ruling elite actually serves its purpose well. No one among the major political parties wants to change the system as there is no guarantee that bringing in genuine democracy, where the educated middle class has a genuine say, will benefit these power players.

Power politics is being played only to strengthen the position of the players, overshadowing the ideological battle. The PPP used Fazal’s long march to its own advantage and strengthen its position for bargaining with the establishment, while the PML-N kept its vote bank under the impression that Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and his close aides had hijacked the party, and neither Sharif nor Maryam had any say in the decision-making. This reason was given for an unimpressive show by PML-N during the reception of Fazal’s long march at a rally in Punjab.

This narrative can attract blind followers of PML-N, but anyone who has a little knowledge of PML-N politics is aware that no one in the party can bypass Nawaz Sharif. So in the end, PML-N too got relief from the establishment and it also successfully presented itself to the establishment as a replacement for the PTI government. Shahbaz Sharif’s speech at Fazal’s sit-in was a testimony in this regard.

So the establishment might have survived Fazal’s onslaught, but it has lost ground. The establishment doctrine has weakened, according to which the invisible forces wanted to rule through the PTI for a longer period. Sooner or later a no-confidence move against Khan can be made in parliament and he can be replaced with another puppet. The question that remains is how long this journey of traveling in the same circles will continue. As both the political elite and the establishment seem busy outsmarting each other on the power chessboard, the outside world is busy developing systems that can produce the healthiest of citizens so they can ultimately contribute to the growth of their countries. Contrary to that, Pakistan is stuck in a fight between the political elite and the security establishment, and nothing else matters to the ruling elite.

Sharif’s PML-N had the chance to use its popular support base in Punjab to join Fazal and put pressure on the establishment to go back to its constitutional role instead of only changing the puppet, but it missed the golden opportunity. PPP from Day 1 was riding two boats, and it was always going to align with the establishment in the end. So finally every player on the power chessboard has made a retreat to accommodate each other and to hold their grip firm on power.

This is not to say that Fazal conducted the protest for a change in the status quo. Fazal, being a shrewd politician, knew that if the PPP and PML-N ditched him he would emerge as the only real opposition leader in the country and regain the political space he lost in the general elections of last year. Fazal has actually gained more space, as he now is a brand name in every household. His vote bank that consists mostly of religious people will not ditch him when he calls off his sit-in, as their loyalty to Fazal remains based purely on his religious cult.

Perhaps a commission to probe the allegations of rigging in last year’s ballot can provide a face-saving solution for Fazal. As for the PML-N, it has a genuine case of Sharif’s critical illness and will use it politically to keep the pressure on Khan and his backers and to convince its vote bank that it actually did not back off and is still paying the price of taking a stand against the establishment. The PPP has a cult following in the Sindh interior, so it never will face any questions from its vote bank on its political strategy. Khan has bought some time, and his backers will leave him on his own to save their own interests and to tone down the criticism they face from the masses.

As far as the masses are concerned, democratic supremacy and the change of the status quo remain a dream, as right now from the ruling elite, as well as the bigwigs of human-rights, literature, journalism, religion and liberalism movements, everyone is benefiting from the current system. Anyone who benefits from a certain system can never bring change in the status quo. Perhaps it is time for the educated class in Pakistan to fill the space of a genuine anti-status-quo political party.

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