Pakistani opposition party leaders, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (2R) Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) speaks along with former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (2L) and Maryam Nawaz (L), daughter of currently incarcerated former premier Nawaz Sharif and Jamiat Ulema-e Islam-F (JUI-F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman (R) attend a press conference in Islamabad on May 19, 2019. – Leaders of the opposition parties on May 19 announced their plans to “launch protests inside and outside the parliament after Eid fesital and hold an All Parties Conference (APC) to chalk out a joint strategy on how to tackle the problems facing Pakistan”. (Photo by FAROOQ NAEEM / AFP)

With Karachi inundated with crises — literally — Islamabad issues are down to a simmer. Is something cooking on slow burn?

This week the opposition leader came to town, and then went to town on the government. As the din of PTI’s celebrations about surviving two years in power subsided, the opposition dialled up its critique of PTI’s two-year performance (or lack of it, according to them). Opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif set up camp in the capital and galvanised his team to launch a coordinated offensive. At a star-studded press conference led by the president of the party, PML-N heavyweights like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal, Khurram Dastgir, Miftah Ismail and Khawaja Saad Rafique drew up a detailed charge sheet against the government and issued a report, titled “Destruction of National Power: 2-year performance of PTI Government”.

This done, what now?

The All Parties Conference (APC) seems the obvious next step. Shahbaz Sharif has had a detailed meeting with JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the meeting has created positive optics that may paper over the visible differences that had cropped up between the two parties over the voting on FATF bills. Party officials say the APC will take place after Muharram, most likely in Lahore, and the PML-N will play the host. The motley crew of opposition leaders will then attempt to forge a plan of action that can enhance their relevance in the current situation. ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER AD

The reason this sounds rather vague is, well, because it is. The opposition parties are in search of a strategy that can unify them for a certain purpose. In this endeavour, they are grappling with three things they do not seem to have: strategy, unity and purpose.

There are many variations in the line of thinking prevailing within opposition ranks. Here are four variants:

HAWKS — These people want to take the extreme step against the PTI government by having the entire opposition resign from the assemblies. This, they argue, would render the present set-up invalid and would force a new general election. This school of thought is led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman and he has been vociferously arguing that this is the only sure way of getting rid of the PTI government.

The Maulana has also complained to other opposition leaders that he had lifted his last year’s dharna from Islamabad after receiving guarantees that Imran Khan would be ousted by January 2020. He tells people he has been betrayed. Now he wants to get even.

SEMI-HAWKS — These men and women feel their ‘friendly’ opposition has accrued them no dividends and time is ripe to move into higher gear. Scattered among the ranks of PML-N and PPP, such people have been arguing in closed-door meetings that the APC should announce a plan of public rallies and jalsas that crank up the heat and generate some higher-decibel noise. They propose the entire opposition should hold rallies in cities like Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and some other key locations in order to pile up pressure on the government. This can be done, they say, by bringing out sizeable crowds, getting the entire lineup of opposition leaders on stage and announcing a united front against the government. They believe they do not have to create any disruptions or civil unrest or even protests to galvanise their cadres but just create a wave of defiance that can force the government into a reactive mode.

This will also strengthen their negotiating position. The JUI-F chief has also made an offer to others: if they are arrested by the government, he will announce a “jail bharo tehreek” (volunteering arrests) and his cadres will converge on to prisons to court arrest.

REALISTS — These people argue time is not opportune for any aggressive moves and it is preferable to confine defiance to the parliament and press conferences. Their argument is that the establishment is still aligned with the government and no amount of protests or rallies or even resignations can make any major difference in this equation.

A better strategy, they argue, is to engage with the establishment in a constructive manner. Such an engagement could have multiple objectives and intended outcomes, including some re-arrangement of parliamentary realities, and it is better for the opposition to pressure the government through such means. They agree such engagement — howsoever limited in the last two years has not produced any tangible results for them, but it is still too early to abandon these efforts. In fact, it may be time to double these efforts as the burden of PTI’s mal-governance begins to weigh down on the system.

DREAMERS — This group is in no hurry. They are not interested in getting rid of PTI government only to rule under the same restrictive system. Most of these people are to be found within the PML-N ranks and they take the long view. Their logic: give Imran Khan enough time and he will fall under his own weight. They say it is better to let the PTI complete its term and fail at the elections rather than drag it down and provide it an opportunity to paint itself as a ‘political martyr’.

These dreamers believe time is one their side; that with each passing day the hybrid regime sags under its own weight while the PML-N gets stronger in public perception. This school of thought believes that the PML-N should return to power under new rules of the game that are not restrictive in nature. They take the long-term view and genuinely believe that Pakistan cannot sustain the mode of governance on display. Therefore, best to wait out this phase and refuse to compromise on basic principles.

Opposition parliamentarians say there is little chance that strategic unifying of these different ideas could happen anytime soon. No leader is willing to take a definitive position in these fluid circumstances. At best, the opposition can hope to create some momentum through the optics of the APC but it appears unlikely, say insiders, that a firm, definitive and action-oriented grand strategy is on the cards.

However, two developments may have a bearing on PML-N’s thinking and plan of action in the coming days: (i) PTI government’s aggressive campaign to get Nawaz Sharif to return (ii) initiation of cases with serious charges against Maryam Nawaz. PTI has ratcheted up its rhetoric against the Sharifs in the last few days and this may force the hands of the PML-N. Some party insiders complain that while PTI is targeting their leadership with personal attacks, they are responding with issue-oriented tirades. The two do not match.

Once the PPP is done with fishing in troubled Karachi waters — literally — it may bring some specific proposals to the opposition table. For now, however, APC is struggling against the weight of its own expectations.