Maryam Nawaz (center) attends an anti-government rally held by the Pakistan Democratic Movement in Multan, Punjab, on November 30, 2020. After a promising start, the multiparty opposition movement has lost momentum. Photo: AFP / Shahid Saeed Mirza

On Thursday evening, the opposition alliance known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) announced it would stage a long march against the government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on March 26.

Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, the head of the alliance, while addressing the press conference looked like a man who was trying to save the face of the PDM by giving justification for its component parties not resigning from the national and provincial assemblies.

The PDM also announced that it would fight the upcoming Senate election, and that perhaps is the last nail in its coffin. After launching a massive public movement against the government last October, the PDM lost momentum when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) ditched the opposition platform by secretly negotiating with the military establishment.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who gave impetus to the PDM through his fierce speeches and narrative, perhaps knew that he was pitted against all the odds. Former president Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP was always going to compromise as it lacks the courage it once had when the late Benazir Bhutto was at the helm of affairs.

Fazal’s only relevance was bringing his religious cult on to the streets – it was Sharif all the way who was poised to change the course of history. However, his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was not ready to go against the wind. Most of the members of assemblies in private discussions disapproved of Sharif’s narrative. In the view of traditional PML-N legislators and leaders, it was impossible to push the establishment on to the back foot.

So now all the PDM can do is wait and see if the establishment will give it any concessions. For the PPP, the concessions have already been granted, as its co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari got relief this week in the form of bail from the Islamabad High Court in a suspicious-transaction case.

If sources are correct, the PPP will also benefit in the Senate election and will get a few more seats. For Zardari and the PPP, this is more than enough, as after the demise of Benazir Bhutto and the party’s poor show of governance in the center from 2008 to 2013, its political power has been limited to the province of Sindh.

For Sharif, however, the game is entirely different. He has been elected three times as prime minister and his PML-N is the most popular party in the province of Punjab and in the Hazara belt. This means he could sweep a new general election.

So for Sharif, anything less than fresh polls is not important. He and his trusted aides have already borne the brunt of taking on the establishment, with some of them jailed and many corruption cases being lodged against them to teach them a lesson.

Sharif also enjoys the backing of a few influential global players, so unlike Zardari, he is not in a position to surrender, as this would only delay his chances of coming back to power. It is pertinent to note that the current establishment has no wish for him or his party to come back to power as it fears being held accountable for its unconstitutional role in rigging the political discourse.

On the other hand, the establishment will not offer an olive branch to Sharif unless he and his daughter Maryam Nawaz stay out of the politics for a specific period of time. As well, in the form of Imran Khan, the establishment already has a prime minister who happily takes dictation from it and never says no to the bigwigs of the military elite.

So in a nutshell, both the invisible forces and Prime Minister Imran Khan have weathered the storm. This means Khan will remain in office at least until the next election and the establishment will keep calling the shots.

The betrayal of the PPP did not come as a surprise, as since Benazir’s death this party has lacks the wisdom and spine to do genuine politics. The question now, however, is what will Sharif do now? Will he wait and watch the establishment ruling through a hybrid regime or will he devise a new strategy?

Then there is the question of the future of Maryam Nawaz, as despite her brave efforts to take on the invisible forces, she lost the game. She was betrayed by the stalwarts of her own party who either chose to remain silent or failed to helped her in her fight by not mobilizing the people. The crowds that the PML-N drew during the past year and so were the result of Maryam’s efforts.

The PDM’s failure is a classic example of political parties ditching the masses and secretly asking for relief and a share of the pie from the establishment. The betrayal of the PPP and failure of the PDM have discredited the genuine political parties and the efforts of those who wanted to push the establishment on to the back foot.

From now on even Sharif and Fazal too will be distrusted by the masses. After all, both men are experienced enough and they knew from the first day that the PPP would ditch them; in fact PPP proposed the idea of launching the PDM to control the agitation against the establishment.

In fact, Sharif knew the game from the start, and he let the PPP spoil the opposition movement as in the long run it would benefit him, as the PPP would be remembered for ditching the PDM at a crucial point in time. This will haunt the PPP in the next general election campaign.

The PDM’s call for a long march is just a face-saving ploy, as it will hold no significance once the Senate election is held. In politics neither victories nor defeats are permanent, but the question is, what have the mainstream political parties have learned from this failure?

For instance, do Sharif and Maryam realize that by making the PML-N a party of a few trusted aides they have not only denied the chance for democracy to prevail among their own party’s cadres but have rendered it unable to organize its grassroots structure?

There are land grabbers, opportunists, relatives and friends of party leadership and right-wing pro-status-quo leaders in the PML-N, and this makes it impossible for the party to stage anti-establishment demonstrations on its own. The same is the case with the PPP, where nepotism and undemocratic norms prevail over merit and democratic norms within the party.

For Sharif, it is time to hand over the PML-N to Maryam if she is willing to reorganize the party and induct fresh blood into its second-tier leadership. Unless this happens, the PML-N, despite Sharif’s brave stance, will not be able to attract enough people on to the streets with its anti-establishment narrative.

Since the PPP has lost the plot and for the sake of temporary gains has surrendered to the establishment, Sharif’s PML-N remains the only mainstream party that can challenge the hegemony of the military elite.

Thus Sharif needs to decide whether he will leave a legacy of a leader who fought fearlessly against the unconstitutional involvement of the establishment in the political discourse or wants to be remembered as a leader who fought the battle half-heartedly by posturing with an anti-establishment stance but also allowed his close aides to negotiate with the elite.

After the betrayal of the PPP and the failure of the PDM, Sharif will have to fight alone, and who knows better than he that coming to power on the back of the establishment is useless and only discredit the political leaders and parties.

Whatever route Sharif takes will determine his fate and Maryam’s future. Like it or not, for now Sharif remains the only mainstream political leader who still can turn the tables against the establishment and can rise to power again, if only he can force the establishment to allow a free and fair election.

As far as the PPP is concerned, it has ditched the PDM but it has also distanced itself from the genuine democratic struggle. 

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.