July Issue 2019
Friends in Deed
While presiding over the National Assembly (NA) session on June 23, Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri issued a ban on the word ‘selected’ being used for Prime Minister Imran Khan, by any parliamentarian. The sarcastic jibe was first used by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in August, in reference to the allegations of the military establishment backing the PM in last year’s general election. All major opposition parties, including the PPP, had initially rejected the polls, dubbing the entire process rigged in favour of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Since the elections, the national opposition parties – led by the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – have issued repeated warnings of nationwide protests against the government. These echoes have especially gathered momentum following the aggravation of the national economic crises, which has seen the Pakistani rupee sink to 157 against the US dollar, resulting in a five-year high inflation rate of 9.41 per cent.
In May, Bhutto-Zardari hosted an Iftar party for the senior PML-N leadership including Maryam Nawaz, where they were joined by members of the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). The opposition leaders decided to take to the streets in protest against the ‘incompetence’ of the government. Many feel the ban on the word ‘selected’ indicates that the ruling party is feeling the heat of the opposition’s agitation.
Running parallel to the calls for protests have been the corruption cases against the opposition leaders as part of the ongoing accountability process, which the government claims to have initiated. On June 10, former president and PPP Co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, was arrested in a fake bank accounts case. On June 20, Zardari addressed the NA, asking for an end to the ‘accountability’ and ‘arrests,’ failing which nationwide protests would ensue.
In his speech, Zardari repeatedly underlined the economic downfall, and criticised the fiscal budget presented by the government. A day before the PPP Co-chairman’s speech, the PML-N President and Opposition Leader, Shehbaz Sharif, had ‘rejected’ the budget as well, during his speech in the NA.
In his three-hour-long address, Shehbaz Sharif castigated the PTI’s governance, underlined its economic failures, and condemned it for taking ‘dictation from the IMF’ – a reference to the bailout agreement signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which played a major role in the final budget shape-up.
“Imran Khan used to say the PML-N government imposes indirect taxes. What happened today? The ‘masters of U-turn’ in this budget have imposed 70 per cent indirect taxes,” said Sharif in his address.
Sharif addressed the NA following his return to Pakistan on June 9, after spending two months in London. He had flown out on April 10, immediately after his name had been removed from the Exit Control List (ECL) by the Lahore High Court (LHC), amid a NAB interrogation against him.
The opposition leader had been released on bail by the LHC in February; he was arrested in October last year, in the Ashiana Housing case. His departure for London had prompted speculation of self-imposed exile; those rumours were further fanned when he stepped down as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman, in May.
Following Sharif’s departure for London and with the PML-N’s Supreme Leader, Nawaz Sharif, serving a seven-year sentence in Kot Lakhpat Jail in the Al-Azizia Steel Mills case, rumours of a rift within the Sharif family and the party, resurfaced. While the PML-N leadership downplayed any divides, with Hamza Shehbaz actively participating in party activities alongside Maryam Nawaz – whether it was the PPP-hosted Iftar party, or the rally that accompanied Sharif to Kot Lakhpat Jail – the ruling PTI continued to claim that all was not well within the PML-N.
“There is a power struggle going on between the Nawaz and Shehbaz families. The tussle is now between Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shehbaz to take control of the party,” says PTI leader and Punjab Minister for Information and Culture, Samsam Bukhari.
Despite the PML-N downplaying the divide and Sharif’s return to Pakistan, Bukhari maintains that signs of fissures are evident in Maryam Nawaz’s press conferences. “How can they convince the nation of their narrative, when they can’t even agree on the same narrative themselves?” he asks.
Bukhari refers to Maryam’s June 22 presser, in which she called the charter of the economy a “mockery of [the] economy.” What made those comments especially damaging for the party was the fact that it was the PML-N’s then finance minister, Ishaq Dar, who had proposed a charter of the economy in 2017, to reach a consensus between political parties so that the country did not have to approach the IMF after every term.
In mocking the charter, Maryam also disagreed with her uncle, of whom she said: “He has his own viewpoint, and everyone knows he thinks differently.” The next day, however, she clarified that her statement had been “taken out of context.”
Paradoxically, the PML-N’s internal rifts are surfacing at a time when the party is closing ranks with the PPP. In fact, the PPP is wholeheartedly endorsing Maryam’s criticism of the charter of the economy. Zardari told the media on June 24, that an All-Parties Conference (APC), featuring a joint opposition, will take a decision on the charter.
Sources within the PML-N reveal that Maryam is echoing her father’s desires. The PML-N supremo does not want a charter with the government, for he strongly believes that the PTI would be overthrown, owing to its incompetence – either by the masses or the party’s ‘backers’ themselves.
With many PML-N leaders subscribing to the Nawaz-Maryam narrative, there are several in the PPP as well who feel that the government will not last the distance.
“Imran Khan was ‘selected’ as the prime minister. We have evidence for the claim. Those who have selected him can’t believe what they have done,” says PPP leader Nabil Gabol.
“[Imran Khan] will be sent packing within this year. And when he is removed, that will be further evidence that he was selected,” he adds.
PML-N spokesperson, Marriyum Aurangzeb, who referred to PM Khan as “handpicked,” after being asked not to use the word ‘selected’ in the NA session on June 24, believes the budget underlines the government’s failures and confusion, which in turn would result in the PTI’s downfall.
“This is the incompetent government’s third budget in 10 months. The PM made false vows of not going to the IMF, and then tried to resolve the economic crises through chicken, eggs and the sale of buffaloes. What can be greater evidence of the government’s incompetence than the fact that the entire focus of the prime minister of the country is on talking trash [against the opposition]?” she says. n