Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, speaks during a public rally of the newly formed Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance of 11 parties, in Karachi on October 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Rizwan Tabssum

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance that was formed to topple the hybrid regime that currently rules the country, is scheduled to hold a public gathering in the city of Multan, Punjab, on Monday.

Until last month, the PDM had been successfully putting pressure on the government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the military establishment, but a break of almost four weeks took the momentum away.

First, the chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, went to Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) for the Legislative Assembly election campaign, and then Maryam Nawaz, the vice-president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) followed suit.

However, the campaigning of both Maryam and Bilawal had little effect on the GB elections as the ruling PTI emerged with the largest number of votes, and with the help of independent candidates is forming a government there.

Breaking the momentum of the PDM and wasting time on a futile attempt to win seats in the GB legislature not only dented the opposition’s chances of bringing the PTI government down, but it also gave a much-needed breather to the regime and its backers.

Then came the second wave of Covid-19, and it is now becoming more lethal with every passing day. Hospitals are almost full of patients suffering from the disease, and educational institutions have been closed down because of the second wave.

In fact, Bilawal Bhutto recently tested positive for Covid-19, and it seems that the pandemic is working in favor of the ruling party. Now the opposition, which at the time of the first wave of Covid-19 in Pakistan was criticizing the government for mismanagement of the pandemic and was pressuring it to impose a lockdown, is doing the opposite.

It is the opposition now that despite knowing that the surge in the number of Covid-19 patients is costing lives is not interested in delaying public gatherings. Such gatherings in a society that hardly follows any of the standard operating procedures (SOP) defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) is only increasing the number of patients. 

So it is the opposition now that is playing politics in the midst of a global pandemic while the PTI government is benefiting from the pandemic as it can use it to ban opposition rallies.

Perhaps the PDM was in a much better position when Nawaz Sharif through his hard-hitting speeches was exposing the bigwigs of the establishment for rigging the political discourse. At that juncture, all the PDM needed was to continue is public gatherings and give Sharif the stage to hit the government and its backers hard.

However, the opportunity was missed as the PPP was not interested in locking horns with the establishment, whereas Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), who was betrayed by the PPP and PML-N last year, was of two minds regarding whether to put his foot on the accelerator or not.

So the space created by Sharif for his PML-N and other opposition parties has been lost in the GB election and the PDM needs to think about what led the two mainstream parties PML-N and PPP to fight an electoral battle in GB that was absolutely irrelevant, as historically in the government there is always formed by the party ruling in the center.

Now after losing time and momentum, the PDM is not only pitted against PTI and its backers but the pandemic as well. The new promotions in the military mean that the current bigwigs of the establishment blamed by Sharif for rigging the political discourse are regaining the space they had lost on the power chessboard.

The other factor working against the PDM is that it only has until January to topple the current regime, as Senate elections are scheduled for March. If the PDM, which is supposed to stage a long march against the government in January, is not able to dislodge PTI and its backers until the end of January, it will be game over, as February will be spent by the politicians to make and break alliances or to buy tickets for the new election of the Senate.

So Imran Khan sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office knows that if he somehow survives until the end of January, it will be over for the PDM.

The PDM knows that if it fails to send Khan packing it will have to wait until 2022 for the next general elections. The establishment will be in a good position even if the PDM can assert the pressure again to offer Punjab as a consolation to PML-N and award a few perks in the coming Senate election to Fazal.

The PPP from the start of the PDM has been in a better bargaining position to get concessions from the establishment and it can get a piece of the cake in the form of a share in the Punjab government if it is given to PML-N and also can hope to get a decent share in the upcoming Senate election.

In another scenario, if the PDM is able to build pressure and attract large crowds against the government in its upcoming public gatherings despite the lethal second wave of Covid-19, it will be interesting to see how Sharif, Fazal and Asif Ali Zardari play their cards.

Zardari, unlike Benazir Bhutto or Zulfikar Bhutto, never takes a decisive stance against the establishment, so his concern is only the removal of Imran Khan. Fazal, ditched by the establishment, targets Khan and a few of his backers in the establishment but for sure he is not going to burn all his boats and will leave the door open for negotiations.

For Sharif, there is no other way but to keep the battle alive by challenging the establishment until he gets reversals of disqualifications of him and his daughter Maryam Nawaz and gets the opportunity to run in a free election.

These three are the main stakeholders in the PDM and they all have one common agenda at least, the removal of Khan. So more than the establishment, it is Khan who needs to resist the pressure asserted by the PDM for the next two months.

The current establishment will never give space to Sharif to re-emerge and conquer the throne again, but on the other hand, Sharif has successfully snatched a good space for himself and his party that is keeping his politics alive despite the Khan-led PTI government and its backers trying everything to throw him out of the politics.

Zardari and Fazal can settle for an in-house change, whereas Sharif will not be interested in that unless he is promised a fresh election. But the question remains, how will he manage to finish the game that he almost singlehandedly brought to a point where he can emerge as the winner?

Whether Sharif’s sympathizers among the global players and in the Arab countries will play a role in forcing a midterm election remains to be seen. How the new Joe Biden administration in Washington will react to the deadlock created between Sharif and the establishment is also unclear at this point.

In Pakistan, a politician can only weaken the mighty establishment but it has always been the global powers who have brokered the deals for a peaceful transition or the face-saving exit of the establishment on previous occasions. For now, it is Sharif against the establishment and the PDM against Imran Khan, and given the current scenario, Khan can survive the onslaught, as the PDM has lost its tempo and momentum.

Sharif remains the key, and perhaps he will have to fight on his own to deliver the knockout punch in the game where he has tilted the balance in his favor. But if the establishment can win back the sympathies of Arab monarchs and if the Biden administration decides to watch the proceedings silently, the military elite can still manage not to let Sharif win the game despite him weakening the hybrid regime.

Interesting times are ahead on the power chessboard, as January remains the decisive month for all the stakeholders. It seems that Sharif will be pitted against the establishment and the current government and it will be either him or the establishment who will win the game, not the PDM or Imran Khan.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.