Pakistan has been in this situation many times before – with the opposition threatening a constitutional crisis by resigning from national and provincial assemblies en masse. Although this particular sword has been raised many times in the past, it has rarely been swung. Will the opposition alliance follow through with its plan, or will we witness another retreat from the brink?
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) held a meeting in Islamabad today that decided the future strategy regarding the march to the federal capital and resignations from assemblies. In attendance is the top leadership of the 11 parties that make up the opposition coalition.
After the meeting, Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman spoke at the press conference that each party’s leadership has started receiving letters of assembly resignations from its MNAs/MPAs, and the process will go on till the end of December, at which point every elected representative of these parties would have submitted their resignation letter to the party head. Furthermore, he also added that this decision was made through a consensus of all the parties involved. This would be the first stage of the opposition’s strategy of resignations. The second and third stages are yet undecided, however, it is likely that the second stage would be handing over the resignations to Fazl-ur Rehman, as a guarantee of commitment to the cause by all parties. The third stage is likely to be the formal handing in of resignations before the long march towards the capital. In the press conference PDM leaders also vowed to have a “shutter-down” strike and a block national highways to halt the economy and bring the government on its knees.
If the government fails to pacify the opposition, it is likely that Maulana will not hesitate from handing in the resignations to the speaker of each respective assembly, as from the very beginning he opposed taking oath in the assemblies, which he alleges are a product of mass rigging. For nearly two years, Fazl-ur Rehman has pushed to create an alliance of the opposition that would bring the political ground on the streets where these parties hold a majority of voter bank, rather than in the parliament.
The resignations are two-fold, one from the National Assembly (NA) and the other from the Provincial Assemblies (PAs). In the National Assembly, the combined opposition holds a significant number of 161, only 18 less than the government coalition. The opposition hopes that en-mass resignation would force the government to dissolve the assemblies and hold fresh elections.
Parts of the PDM have been increasingly vocal about resignations from assemblies, mainly the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and smaller nationalist parties. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has stakes in the system as the ruling party in Sindh, has for now stressed that parliamentary politics should not be forsaken, adding, however, that the party would follow whatever decision the PDM makes.
Rana Sanaullah, a leader who has considerable influence in the MPs of Punjab, said mainstream opposition parties—PML-N, PPP and JUI-F—had reached a consensus about resigning from the National Assembly in order to push the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government for a fresh election.
Similarly, Khawja Asif, a former federal minister and one of the key federal level leader in the PML-N, said, “When this struggle [of the PDM] reaches its peak, our 84 MNAs will resign from the National Assembly and then we will see how the Senate polls are held.”
The PPP, which stands to lose its government in Sindh, has not made statements on when and how the PDM will use the resignation card.
Resigning from assemblies has been a threat that opposition parties have used as a pressure tactic in Pakistani politics. However, these threats are usually just threats and have not materialized into anything of meaningful importance. Only 6 years ago, the PTI was threatening to resign from the National Assembly during the 2014 Dharna in the federal capital. The PTI backtracked on its resignation and did not follow through when the former speaker of the National Assembly expressed resolve to accept the resignations.
The only time the opposition went through with this threat was in 1997 when the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) accused Z. A. Bhutto of mass manipulation and rigging of elections. The situation deteriorated to the extent where the democratically elected government was overthrown and martial law was imposed in the country.
The situation seems similar on the surface, a mass opposition alliance that has lost confidence in the electoral process and sees the government as a one-party reign. But the PNA only resigned after Bhutto dissolved the NWFP (now KP) Assembly. Threats of dissolving the Sindh assembly have been surfacing since the last 2-years as a result of constant tussles between the Centre and Sindh governments, but nothing concrete has ever emerged on the front.
As of now, there are two blocs in the PDM; the hawks that want to resign as soon as possible to halt the system and handicap the parliament. The other bloc, however, does not want to lose the little opposition and bargaining power it gains through staying in the Parliament. How will the two bloc reconcile their difference remains to be seen.
Along with these blocs are individual MPAs and MNAs who are reluctant to give up their hard-earned seats in a sweeping political move. While the PML-N is confident that its large contingent of lawmakers will follow party lines, Maryam Nawaz’s statements saying that party workers will surround the houses of those lawmakers who refuse to resign shows that it may have to face some resistance on that front.
It would be of no use if a few parties resign from assemblies, for a potent impact, unanimous opposition resignations will be of prime importance. Resigning from the National Assembly, but keeping seats in the provincial legislature may be a less-effective half measure that the PDM by decide to keep the PPP mollified.
Even if the on-going PDM huddle decides in principle to resign, much can change before the moment to hang in the resignation papers arrives.