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Monday Jun 10 2019

The beginning of uncertainty: What will the opposition do next?

The stage is set, for the first political dangal (wrestling) between the Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf (PTI) government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and a seemingly joint opposition, led by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F).

As the Eid holidays end, both sides are now busy finalising a strategy and a counter-strategy.

The venue for the protest is likely to be the same, as that of the 2014 dharna, therefore the D-Chowk in Islamabad. Now before the final match begins, we should expect a few side contests as well: in the parliament on June 11 when the budget is announced, after the All Parties Conference (APC) to be held this month, post the outcome of the reference filed in the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and in case the investigations against key opposition leaders by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) reach a conclusion.

Like in every face-off, there will be a winner and a loser. But as of now it would be premature to say whether the dangal will end like the famous wrestling match in the 1980s between Akram Phalwan and Anoki in Karachi. Despite the hype created, the match ended within the first round in favour of Anoki.

There is also a remote possibility that the match may be postpone due to the weather. In parts of Pakistan, temperatures have already soared up to 50 degrees Celsius. As the mercury starts to climb, so will the political temperatures. The peak of which is expected on June 11, when Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh presents the PTI government’s first fiscal budget in the parliament.

Separately, in preparation of the large demonstration, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman has already alerted his religious seminaries of the Islamabad dangal. A close associate of the Maulana told this ascribe that he has briefed the party's central shura (committee) about the plan and has gotten an approval. He also took the shura into confidence about his talks with the Pakistan Muslim League-N’s Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party’s Asif Ali Zardari. Sources say the Maulana is confident that all opposition parties will endorse his plan for a protest in Islamabad at the upcoming APC. “We have mobilised our networks and have also worked out a strategy in case the state uses force,” a JUI-F leader told me, on the condition of anonymity, “We have been told that the dharna could be of a longer duration.”

While the Maulana has a clear way forward, the other opposition parties are somewhat divided. Two clear opinions are emerging. One is to demand mid-term polls, which they are certain will not be acceptable to Imran Khan. Then there are those who suggest launching a movement in phases. But the fear is that if the top leadership is arrested, namely Asif Ali Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif, the young leaders - Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz - could go all out.

Now, challenging the prime minister will not be easy. Despite its internal differences, the PTI is completely behind Imran Khan. Plus, he enjoys considerable support from the powerful media. And since the PTI and its allies have simple majority in the lower house i.e. the national assembly, while the opposition has majority in the upper house i.e. senate, in case the rival parties try to block the budget from sailing through, the government could call in a joint session of the two houses for the approval of the bill.

Even with the support of Akhtar Mengal's Balochistan National Party (BNP), which is allied with the government but seen mostly with the opposition these days, the rival parties are unlikely to have the numbers to put up a serious challenge to the government in the parliament. The PTI’s other coalition partners such as the PML-Q, Janobi Punjab Mahaz and the MQM-Pakistan are still very much with the ruling party.

Although, behind the scenes, the MQM-P, a key partner of Imran Khan’s government, is a little miffed with the centre for not fulfilling its key demands, such as reopening the party’s offices in Karachi. The reason why the centre has reneged on its promises is that the relevant quarters have strong reservations and have given the government a negative report about progressing forward. But even then, the MQM-P is unlikely to leave the coalition.

In the opposition camp, as of now the APC has been planned for third week of June. But before that all eyes will be on a certain reference being heard by the Supreme Judicial Council on June 14, against three judges including Justice Qazi Faez Isa. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and some provincial bar councils have announced to protest the hearing and support Justice Isa, like they did another supreme court judge in 2007.

Political wonks believe that this lawyers’ movement could provide the launching pad the opposition is looking for, unless the SJC bins the reference in the first hearing.

Meanwhile, in an interesting development, the PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has rejected his lawyers, and some say even his father's advise, to seek bail before arrest in the NAB cases pending against him. Those privy to the developments tell me that there is a possibility that the cases against Zardari and his sister could mature and lead to the elder Zardari’s arrest in the coming days. The chief minister Sindh, Syed Murad Ali Shah, and former chief minister, Qaim Ali Shah, are also facing NAB probes while a reference against the Sindh Assembly speaker has already been filed.

In the face of mounting opposition, the prime minister is doing what he can to ensure his house does not fall. A recent statement by him on the civil-military relationship and thanking the military for not demanding an increase in their budget this year, is a signal to the rival parties that all is well.

Sources tell me that some quarters were also not happy over the prime minister's mysterious silence on the recent attack on an army’s check-post allegedly by activists of the Pashtun Tahfuz Movement (PTM) led by parliamentarians, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir. The prime minister did not issue a statement about the incident and it took the government 48 hours to react, and that too through its members of national assembly, Murad Saeed and Ali Mohammad Khan. Later, the government filed a case but decided against moving the lower house for the disqualification of the two parliamentarians.

In the end, a strong opposition or not, the PTI government itself is pinned down by four crucial issues that it must address:

1). Economic crisis, which can deepen in case the FATF decides against Pakistan. This in turn could lead to hurdles in the IMF's bailout package of $6 billion dollars in three years.

2). The PTM matter. The centre must address this prior to the elections in the newly merged districts (ex-FATA). But those who matter, expect Khan to use 'carrot' for the people and PTM supporters, and 'stick' for those who according to them are working against the national interest.

3). Judicial crisis. Here, government has the option to withdraw the reference against a senior judge. In case it insists, and the lawyers decide to come out on the streets, the situation can only benefit the opposition.

4). Crisis within the PTI. The prime minister has been quite disturbed lately after sacking a minister for wrong doings at the time of the price hike in medicines, and again recently when another federal minister was caught pushing nepotism. Separately, the minister for science and technology has triggered controversy by clearly drawing a line between elected and non-elected representatives.

It is primarily due to these challenges confronting the PTI that the PPP and PML-N are confident that the incumbent government can fall with merely a push. As for the rest of us, we will just have to wait and see how the situation unfolds, when the referee blows his whistle. You know what they, “there is never a dull moment in Pakistan”.

Abbas is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang.

He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO