Imploding PDM: Is PPP the anti-hero of the PDM story?
Today, we will be taking a break from our usual topics and will zoom into our own backyard to talk a little bit about matters closer home. In recent days, Pakistan’s ten-party “Pakistan Democratic Movement” (PDM) has begun to move from away its self-declared ‘united front of the opposition’ disposition and toward becoming a spectacle of public wrangling and a purported implosion. So, today, I thought we could discuss the PDM in the context of the PPP – because within the PDM context, it is the PPP that seems to have come out with the most interesting wins.
At the time the PDM was formed, the PPP’s stars looked to be decisively on the wane. It had been wiped out in KPK, Balochistan and the Punjab. It had been out of power in the centre for seven years – a very long time by any measure. It looked to have become restricted to Sindh (minus Karachi and Hyderabad). It had also earned a bad name for itself during the 2018 Senate elections in which it had been alleged that the PPP had ‘bought off’ people to secure seats. Far from winning the prime ministership again, it was now viewed as a small Sindhi party playing second-fiddle to the PML-N and for playing the ‘looker-on’ to a titanic clash between the ‘big boys’ of Pakistani politics – the PML-N and the PTI.
Yet, just six months after going into PDM, the PPP has manoeuvred itself out of most of the holes and tight corners it was supposedly in. It has suddenly catapulted itself into national relevance. It has moved brilliantly on the senate front, vaulting many a member into the upper house, becoming not only the second-largest party in the Senate but also the largest opposition party there. That is, it has effectively displaced the PML-N from its ‘Number 02’ position – a major achievement, even as this is seldom seen as such. For, by doing this, the PPP has manoeuvred itself into a position where the PPP – and not the PML-N – is beginning to look like the “alternative” to the PTI.
Note that the symbolism of the victory of PPP’s Yousaf Raza Gillani against Hafeez Sheikh, a PTI candidate whom the Prime Minister himself was campaigning for, cannot be regarded any less important than it deserves. This is especially so because for once the PPP has demonstrated that it is the PPP that can beat the formerly seemingly invincible PTI – Why? – Because it did.
It would be inaccurate to say that the PPP has achieved this solely through the PDM platform. It has invested years and vast effort in staying relevant and in improving its relevance by opposing the PTI everywhere it could. The PPP has opposed the PTI in all assemblies and on every issue that they could problematize. However, the newly earned status in the Senate has finally cemented the PPP’s position as the “alternative” to the PTI. This is quite an achievement for a party that was said to be dying a slow death as little as a year ago!
Next, the PML-N had been on an extremely confrontational path since at least 2017 when its top boss, Nawaz Sharif, had been ousted from power. Since then, the PML-N had been blaming the security establishment for its travails. When the PDM was formed, the PML-N brought its adversarial, anti-establishment narrative to it as well. Perhaps the PML-N expected all member parties to get behind this narrative. Perhaps, more so, it expected to lead the PDM by acting vanguard to this narrative. Perhaps, even more so, it expected to become the face of political opposition to the PTI and, at least by its own thinking, to the security establishment as well. On this, the PPP refused to engage. When Sharif named certain generals and blamed them for his political woes, the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto publicly stated that the statement had come as a “surprise”. Thereafter, the PPP slowly but surely dissociated itself from the PML-N’s narrative.
In doing so, the PPP did two things. One, it refused to adopt the controversial narrative, thus catapulting itself further afield as a less adversarial, less confrontational, perhaps more ‘palatable’ political alternative. Two, it cut the PML-N down to size. That is to say, the PPP effectively snatched the halo of “face of the opposition” away from the PML-N. Does it have it now on its own head? Not quite at the moment – but it’s getting there. The bigger point here is that it is no longer over the PML-N’s head – which, in the slow chess-pace of Pakistani politics, is significant, if not ‘good enough’. You have to see that now if the PDM moves forward with Sharif’s narrative without the PPP, it will do so with significantly diminished credibility. People will say that the second biggest opposition party pulled away and that it now has an even lesser chance of succeeding. This association between Sharif’s narrative and the PPP, especially in a way where the public sees the latter lending credibility to the former, was not there before the PDM.
Finally, the ambivalence the PDM as an alliance displayed over matters like resignations from assemblies and a long march has diminished PDM’s credibility. And, of the PDM parties, it has struck the most significant blow to the PML-N in terms of public perception. This is because the PML-N had maintained a leadership posture in the PDM. So much so that the public has begun to see the successes and failures of either as intertwined, if not synonymous. What that means for our concern is that without doing very much, the PPP has managed to strengthen the popular perception that its way – i.e. opposition from within elected assemblies – may just be the better way. Can the PML-N turn this around? Maybe it can. But that throws in another very interesting factor.
With the PDM imploding, and its narrative failing to score big for PML-N, the party may yet go for resigning from all assemblies it is a part of. Now, if that happens, and the PPP does not go along – which it seems to have no intention of doing any time soon – then the role of opposition within assemblies will fall very squarely to the PPP. With the PPP having recently won the Senate opposition leader position, similar roles in the National Assembly and Punjab Assembly will come to the PPP. If that happens, the PPP will have become the formal “face of opposition” to the PTI and, then, by extension, as a viable ‘alternative’ to the PTI. In other words, the two-way fight between the PTI and the PML-N would effectively become a three-way fight between the PTI, the PML-N and the PPP – on the national stage. From its position of receding relevance to manoeuvring itself here and breaking open the formerly tighter fighting arena to include itself in the fray, is no small achievement.
Conversely, as the PML-N, with PDM in tow, go after the PTI, the government will be fighting on all fronts: Inside assemblies (PPP) and on the streets (PML-N and PDM). In such a situation, an increasingly embattled government is likely to become more and more ineffective. If it does, the opposition wins – and that includes the PPP. At the same time, with no one else to work with, the PPP will become more and more important for the state to function, allowing a formerly waning party to begin to develop increasing say in matters of governance and policy.
Then, the government may also seek a broken ceasefire. With other adversaries on the streets, it is rather self-evident that the government’s ceasefire initiatives will begin with the PPP. On the negotiating table, the PPP will surely win – at least something. But whatever it is that the PPP wins there, will be far more than the PPP of one or two years ago would have been able to win. And that is why I think, the PPP is the anti-hero to the PDM story.