Fazal-ur-Rehman, head of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. Photo: Wikipedia

The Pakistan Democratic Movement has announced that members of the opposition parties are to submit their resignations from the federal and provincial legislatures to their respective party heads by December 31. The joint opposition platform PDM headed by Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman announced this move in a press conference on Tuesday.

Pakistan, now faced with the Covid-19 pandemic and economic challenges, has been suffering from political turmoil since a federal government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) assumed the power in 2018. The opposition parties, especially former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Fazal’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), have long been accusing the military establishment of rigging the political discourse and bringing Prime Minister Imran Khan to power.

However, the problem is that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has reservations about resigning from the national or provincial assemblies. Unlike the PML-N and JUIF, the PPP has a provincial government in Sindh and a sizable number of legislators in the National Assembly.

So even though the PDM has said that all the parties under its platform will resign from assemblies, it does not seem a viable option. We have seen in the recent past how PTI led by Imran Khan during Sharif’s tenure as prime minister agitated on the streets and resigned from the National Assembly but it was not able to bring Sharif down, and in the end, it took a controversial judicial decision to knock Sharif out of office.

However, his PML-N despite being confronted by the establishment was able to complete its five-year term. So public gatherings or resignations can put further pressure on the already weak PTI government, but these strategies cannot bring it down.

The problem with the PDM remains that the PPP led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is not interested in toppling the system and could even grant concessions to Khan if it is given a good share in the Senate and in the province of Punjab.

According to insiders, former president Asif Ali Zardari has been playing his cards smartly and is convincing the PDM leadership not to go all out against the establishment and instead look for a replacement of the PTI government in the province of Punjab.

PTI’s crucial ally in Punjab, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) headed by Chaudry Pervaiz Elahi, is not happy with the incumbent government’s policies. Elahi is also a good friend of Zardari. If Elahi can bring a few independent members with him, PTI could lose its provincial government.

However, the question is, why would Sharif let Elahi and Zardari take a share of the cake in Punjab, the province that is his electoral fortress and where he can make a clean sweep in any free and fair election?

Besides, the question arises as to why the current establishment, knowing that Sharif is going for an all-out kill, would allow even a glimpse of a comeback to the PML-N in Punjab.

Fazal, the head of the PDM, is not the main stakeholder in the game, as in an election his party cannot win more than 14 to 18 National Assembly seats, since it only has a popular base in a few areas of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

So despite having differences with a lot of the top military brass, Fazal’s old allies in the establishment can engage some of his friends in the Arab region as a bridge to ease the tension between Fazal and the establishment and can give him a decent share in the provincial government of Balochistan along with a few seats in the Senate.

Sharif, the most experienced of the current lot of politicians, knows that the PPP will resist until the last moment resigning from the National Assembly, and even if it does it will never dissolve its own provincial government in Sindh.

So what is there for Sharif? Perhaps the public gathering to be held in Lahore this Sunday and the long march, if nothing changes until then, will push the establishment further on to the back foot, and a few of Sharif’s backers among global players will mediate the terms and conditions where either Punjab can be given to him or he along with Maryam Nawaz will be given a clean chit and cases in the court against them will be quashed.

We have seen in the past when the late Benazir Bhutto struck a deal with the then-dictator Pervez Musharraf and returned to power and Sharif cashed in the opportunity through his backers in Riyadh at that time and his lifetime disqualification was overturned by the Supreme Court soon after he was allowed to return to the country. 

Imran Khan, on the other hand, may be the weakest prime minister of recent times in terms of number games in the National Assembly, but as long as his backers in the establishment are sitting at the helm of affairs it will be difficult to topple his government through a no-confidence motion in the assembly or through street agitation.

For sure a man like Sharif who has seen it all in the power corridors and still enjoys good backing among the global players will be pressing hard to make it even more difficult for the hybrid regime in Pakistan to sail smoothly, and his decision to whether or not to initiate a long march will decide his fate. The PDM without Sharif and his PML-N does not have the strength nor the adequate backing of global players to take this battle to the logical end.

Sharif has not only regained political space for his party but also has made a few of the bigwigs of the establishment weak and controversial in the public eye by accusing them of conspiring against him and the democratic system.

In the process, he has also successfully launched the political career of his daughter Maryam Nawaz. That was never possible while PML-N was in the power, as normally politicians touch the height of their popularity when they are in opposition. So even if the PDM fails to dislodge the PTI government and its backers, every major stakeholder has already benefited, or will benefit after building more pressure.

As far as the PDM motive of dislodging the PTI government is concerned, that does not seem likely to be fulfilled unless Sharif or Fazal can pull a rabbit out of a hat and surprise everyone. For Khan, however, things will not remain the same, as whether he likes it or not a few concessions will be awarded to the PPP and JUIF, and Sharif’s PML-N will remain active in politics as the biggest threat to him and his backers.

The actual question is, how will the political deadlock be resolved? For that, the traditional global players will have to play their parts, and with Khan and establishment in weaker positions, they will have to concede and give some space to the old political players.

As far the economy is concerned, it is not going to revive in the near future and in the post-Covid world where almost every country will face a tough economic situation Pakistan too will feel the heat, and sadly the weakest segments of the population will bear the brunt.

For now, the most the PDM can gain is a share in the Balochistan government, and a good share in the Senate. Sharif will have to decide whether to retake Punjab if his global backers intervene as he did in the general elections of 2008 by agreeing to take Punjab and later got his disqualification and conviction reversed by the higher court. Or will he decide to be the lone warrior and without the PDM still fight on his own against the current government and its backers? 

For now, despite Sharif’s heaviest blow to Khan and his backers, the invisible dynamics of the power game have not changed entirely and the hybrid regime stands a good chance of surviving.

The Games of Thrones in Pakistan often are decided by external players, and in the recent game what role they will play remains to be seen, as Sharif has played his cards well and will be looking to reap the benefits. Whether it will be Punjab or relief from the judicial decisions against him remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Asif Zardari will be the most satisfied person, as not only has he survived the onslaught from Khan and his backers on the Sindh government but he has created a chance where he can get his party a good share in Punjab or the Senate in case of a settlement.

Fazal will be eyeing the Senate and Balochistan too while Khan and his backers will have to divide the cake between the players of the power chessboard.

Welcome to another interesting season of the Game of Thrones of Pakistan.

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.