Though there are quite a few reasons for opposition leaders to form an unlikely alliance in a bid to topple Prime Minister Imran Khan’s 15-month old government, the defeat that they suffered at the hands of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) candidates in the July 2018 general election is one of the main factors in bringing them together.
The political parties still don’t agree on certain issues. One thing that unites them is their allegation that last year’s election was rigged in favour of Imran Khan’s PTI. Increasingly, though cautiously, the military and other pillars of the so-called establishment are blamed for favouring Imran Khan at the expense of other parties. The opposition leadership has demanded fresh elections as it would provide it another chance to win, possibly as joint candidates of the nine parties in an anti-PTI alliance. The economic problems confronting the people would give the opposition hope to attract votes and do better than the PTI in case of a fresh election.
Other major unifying factors are the tough and controversial accountability campaign undertaken by the PTI government through the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and other anti-graft bodies and the poor state of the economy that has caused price hike and unemployment. Opposition politicians, who have been arrested and put on trial for corruption and misuse of power, allege that they are being unfairly targeted in the accountability drive due to political reasons. The ruling PTI has pointed out that the previous governments and not the PTI instituted some of these cases.
Personal issues too are a factor in pitting the opposition against the PTI government in general and Imran Khan in particular. Name-calling is common in present-day politics in Pakistan with Imran Khan squaring off against not only his nemesis Maulana Fazlur Rahman, but also Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto. Referring to Imran Khan as a “selected” and “rejected” prime minister isn’t as nasty as calling him an agent of the Jews and the West or questioning his religious beliefs, especially concerning the finality of the prophethood. Imran Khan lets go no opportunity to label Fazlur Rahman as “Maulana Diesel” and describe the young PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto as “Bilawal sahiba”.
The name-calling is considered fun by many, but it causes outrage among the diehard supporters of some of these politicians.
However, getting defeated by mostly unknown PTI candidates in their own constituencies is something that cannot be easily forgotten by the opposition stalwarts. This happened mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is the real battleground in the ongoing tussle between the PTI and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), the two main players in the dharna politics. They are also the two biggest political forces in the province and draw most of their protestors from there whenever they want to stage a march on the federal capital.
It was Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the nationally-known heads of important parties suffered defeat at the hands of largely unknown PTI candidates. The defeat meant that they were out of the National Assembly and, therefore, unable to play a role in the parliament.
Being rendered irrelevant in parliamentary politics for the next five years, they are now struggling to make themselves relevant by using their considerable street-power.
Fazlur Rahman, the head of Pakistan’s biggest religious party, JUI-F, suffered the biggest defeat of them all as he lost by a wide margin in two National Assembly constituencies in his native Dera Ismail Khan and neighbouring Tank. PTI candidates, Ali Amin Gandapur who is now a federal minister, and businessman Shaikh Mohammad Yaqoob, were the winners. The loss to Shaikh Yaqoob was shocking for the Maulana as he had been a member of the JUI-F and had contested and lost election on its ticket for the Senate in the past.
Gandapur, a firebrand and colourful politician, has been rubbing salt into the wounds of Fazlur Rahman by offering to resign his seat and again contest the seat. Understandably, the latter has yet to take up the challenge: another defeat would deflate his claim that he was made to lose by the powers that be.
Fazlur Rahman’s argument has been that the entire 2018 election was rigged — not just the polls in his National Assembly constituency.
Asfandyar Wali Khan, the Awami National Party (ANP) chief, lost his family National Assembly seat in his home district, Charsadda, to PTI’s little-known Fazal Mohammad Khan, who had never won an assembly election in the past. Also in Charsadda, the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) founder Aftab Ahmad Sherpao was defeated by an obscure lawyer Anwar Taj, who was fielded by the PTI for the first time to contest an assembly election. Sherpao had been undefeated on this seat until then.
Both the ANP and the QWP are part of the alliance built painstakingly by Fazlur Rahman. A new election would be their best chance to return to the National Assembly.
The PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif unwisely contested for a National Assembly seat from Swat in 2018 after being persuaded by his party colleagues from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He was easily defeated by PTI’s former MNA Salimur Rahman, whose father Dr Mahboobur Rahman, a former federal minister, had been associated with the PPP for years.
The young Bilawal Bhutto also committed a mistake by agreeing to contest the National Assembly seat from Malakand district, which in the past was known as ‘mini-Larkana’ as a stronghold of the PPP but in recent years has become a bastion of support for the PTI, Jamaat-i-Islami, the JUI-F and the ANP. The winner in 2018 was PTI’s Junaid Akbar, who had won the seat in the 2013 general election as well.
Though Jamaat-i-Islami isn’t part of the opposition alliance led by its former ally Fazlur Rahman, its leader Sirajul Haq has increasingly become critical of the ruling PTI. The Jamaat-i-Islami was the junior partner of the PTI in the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from 2013-2018. Since then, the two have drifted apart and are now in opposing camps. One reason for the bitterness in Sirajul Haq’s tone against the Imran Khan government seems to be his loss in his native Lower Dir district in the 2018 election to PTI’s almost unknown nominee, Mohammad Bashir Khan. Allegations of a rigged election and the demand for fresh polls would suit Sirajul Haq and many of his party colleagues as the Jamaat-i-Islami is presently stuck in the political wilderness after having been almost knocked out of parliamentary politics. The PTI is responsible for the Jamaat-i-Islami’s plight as its candidates won from constituencies where the party’s contestants stood a chance.
The 2018 election results in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa came as a surprise even to the PTI as no party has ever won two consecutive elections in the province due to the incumbency factor. It was obvious that rigging allegations would be made. This has happened and is the basis of the ongoing Islamabad dharna. However, the coming together of opposition parties in a bid to oust the PTI government may not have happened so quickly — barely 15 months after Imran Khan came to power — if their top leaders had not lost their assembly seats to political novices belonging to the PTI.