Former Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, shown here during a press conference in Islamabad on June 28, 2018, has in effect forced the postponement of a protest march against the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Power politics is the art of deceiving the masses and one’s allies and grabbing the opportunity to seek power at any cost. On Tuesday, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) did exactly that by betraying the opposition alliance known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

PPP supremo Asif Ali Zardari in a video address to a PDM meeting opposed the idea of resigning from the national and provincial legislative assemblies before the long march planned by the alliance for March 26. Zardari also asked former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to return to the country to face the wrath of the establishment. He conditioned the resignations of his party members from the assemblies on Sharif’s return.

As a result, the PDM postponed the long march against the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government, to the probable relief of the regime led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, which is already struggling.

This betrayal by the PPP was not a surprise for many, as it was already known that the party last October had been talking with the military establishment on the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement if the Khan-led government were sent packing.

It was the PPP that slowed the momentum of the PDM by announcing its participation in a futile election campaign in Gilgit Baltistan and then persuaded the PDM to fight the Senate election. So the PPP again showing shortsightedness and unwillingness to take on the establishment was expected.

Experienced leaders of the PDM like Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, were aware that the PPP was riding two boats at the same time. After all, it was never an easy call for the PPP to sacrifice its leadership of the provincial government in Sindh, knowing all too well that it can never win more than 40 to 45 National Assembly seats if fresh elections are held.

So the PTI government and its backers have been given a new lease on life by the PPP and Zardari, as for now the threat of the long march has been removed. The spineless and visionless leadership of the PPP, unable to create space for its revival in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), decided to play the role of the B-team of the establishment.

Probably Zardari is hoping that if Imran Khan is sent packing, his PPP with the help of the establishment can come to power. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the PPP’s rhetoric of saving democracy has been exposed to the masses as a sham.

For Sharif, the battle becomes harder, as he will have to fight on his own with only the help of his daughter Maryam Nawaz and possibly Fazal to overthrow the PTI regime and its backers in the establishment.

Fazal, with good street power, can attract his huge cult, while Maryam Nawaz can bring in a decent crowd from Punjab if the PDM in the near future decides to go for a long march against the government. In fact, if Sharif and Fazal could agree to go ahead with the march they would not need the support of the PPP or any other political party.

The battleground is Punjab, and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) can create havoc in that province if it decides to play the final round. Sharif did that in 2009 when he led the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of judges and attracted a huge crowd for his march. Maryam now can do the same if she is not arrested.

However, before taking any further steps, the opposition parties need to think about what they are actually looking for. The PPP’s policy of surrendering to the establishment has no mass appeal, especially outside of Sindh province, while Fazal can only reach his cult vote bank. Sharif’s PML-N remains the only mainstream party that can actually bring about a change in the status quo if it decides to take the battle to its logical conclusion.

To achieve that goal, Maryam will have to lead from the front, and if there is no long march in the near future she will need to address public gatherings in each and every town in Punjab to mobilize the masses before the announcement of the 2021 federal budget.

Imran Khan’s PTI regime will not be able to provide a people-friendly budget as it has to fulfill the conditions and demands of the International Monetary Fund, which is the main source of lending to this government.

Further inflation and price rises for commodities and utility tariffs will further anger the masses, which will work in favor of the PML-N. However, the problem remains that even the PML-N is divided, as many of its members who hold seats in the assemblies privately want a settlement with the establishment.

This is the same rotten mindset as the PPP’s, the belief that no political party in Pakistan can come to power without the support of the military establishment. But in reality the dynamics will change if Sharif and his PML-N can survive the onslaught of the establishment and can enjoy a wave of popularity that means the old myth of the establishment being invincible is no longer true.

The changing mindset of the general public about the future of the country, the huge business empire of the military establishment, its surrender on Jammu and Kashmir, and its involvement in political discourse have created strong resentment in the provinces of Punjab and KP.

So in the long run Zardari and his PPP will pay the cost of betraying the PDM and surrendering to the establishment, while Sharif and Fazal will reap the benefits in the future for their anti-establishment stance. For the PPP this is the end of its mainstream politics, as it will be confined to Sindh only, and if Sharif and Fazal are able to force a new general election it will even find it hard to win seats from the big urban areas of Sindh. 

So despite the PDM’s temporary loss, things remain bright for Fazal and especially for Sharif. However, if Sharif seriously wants to win back the supremacy of the ballot, not only will he have to get rid of those members of his party who still have the traditional status-quo mindset, but he will also have to come up with a new vision of forming a truth and reconciliation forum where everyone including him can be questioned by fearless judges like Justice Qazi Faez Isa.

Only then can meaningful reform and a change in the system be brought to the country. Sharif has offered to form a truth commission in the past, and he should work to persuade his allies to demand the same. This would present a clear picture to the masses on who actually has been ruling the country from behind the curtains and eating up the major chunk of the national budget for decades.

For now, both Sharif and Fazal probably will look forward to the months of June and July to launch a final strike against the hybrid regime. On the other hand, announcing yet another budget unfriendly for the masses will only make the PTI government more unpopular, while Zardari’s PPP now has no chance to revive its fortunes in Punjab or for that matter in KP.

This is how things look on the power chessboard after the PPP’s betrayal, which has left Sharif and Maryam as the only mainstream leaders of the country who actually are fighting against the invisible quarters.

In fact, the PPP’s betrayal has only further strengthened Maryam and Sharif and thus can be termed a suicidal attack on itself for short-term political gain.

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.