Elusive Common Ground: The Politics Of Public Opinion

Elusive common ground

Elusive common ground in the 75 years of its existence, Pakistan has seen several extreme levels of confrontation between political actors. A massive grassroots movement demonstrated against then-Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s 10-year rule in 1968 while his government was busy celebrating a “decade of development.” Almost all political opposition parties united, and the unrest gradually spread to East and West Pakistan.

Hundreds of demonstrators died in the massive riots. Ayub Khan was considered a military dictator and his government was seen as the most corrupt by the opposition parties. Ayub Khan viewed most opposition parties as anti-Pakistani. Despite the elusive common ground and the huge gulf between the two sides, they managed to sit face to face at the February 1969 round table to resolve thorny constitutional issues.

 Among Ayub Khan’s interlocutors was Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, who was in prison and due to stand trial for incitement to hatred in what was then East Pakistan, but was released on special terms to take part in the dialogue.

The only notable absentee was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who thought boycotting the Round Table would better serve his policies. The round table was a success as Ayub Khan agreed to almost all the opposition’s demands, including his resignation as a presidential candidate in the next elections; By then, however, army chief Yahya Khan had developed his own ambitions to become Ayub Khan’s successor and did not allow for a smooth transition to the next civilian configuration. He introduced martial law and took over the affairs of the state. 

 In 1977, another public uprising against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto broke out after what was widely believed to be massive electoral fraud. The excitement grew intense. Martial law in several cities and the deployment of the army failed to stem the tide of the anti-Bhutto movement.

Despite acrimonious ties between Bhutto and the opposition Pakistan National Alliance, the two sat down and nearly agreed on reelection elusive common ground, and the details involved. The then-Saudi Ambassador to Islamabad, Riyadh al-Khateeb, played an important role in mediating between Bhutto and the opposition camp, which led to dialogue. Unfortunately, despite the dialogue, the confrontation ended with another martial law. 

 Even with General Ziaul Haq in near-absolute power as president and army chief, seemingly weak Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo took the bold step of inviting opposition leaders, including Zia’s arch-rival Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.

Party Congress in March 1988 to hold consultations on a peace agreement in Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto took an active part in the conference despite her opposition to Zia’s regime. 

 Is there a body that can facilitate political dialogue between the conflicting parties?

 As late as December 2014, after the Peshawar Public Military School tragedy, all political leaders – including Imran Khan, who was then leading a protracted occupation of Islamabad against the government of Nawaz Sharif – reached an agreement on a National Action Plan to combat the scourge of terrorism.

Subsequently, Army Commander General Raheel Sharif helped persuade Imran Khan to suspend the occupation and attend the conference. 

 MPs from different parties such as the PML-N government, the main opposition party, the PPP, and even the PTI, gathered in the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform to unanimously adopt the 2017 Electoral Law (President), Dr. Arif Alvi even chaired a subcommittee to make recommendations on the use of technology in elections.

This all happened after the PTI and its ally PAT’s vicious attack in Islamabad in August 2014 to overthrow the government of Nawaz Sharif.

After the dramatic events of 2017-2018, when Nawaz Sharif was ousted as Prime Minister and Imran Khan was sworn in in August 2018, there appears to have been a sea change in the domestic political scene. since then, direct contact between PTI management and PML-N/PPP.

Imran Khan lost a key meeting with the opposition in February 2019 after Indian warplanes bombed Balakot and the two countries came perilously close to a nuclear confrontation. The constitution requires the prime minister to consult with the opposition leader to appoint a chief election commissioner and members of the electoral commission, but Imran Khan has consistently refused to meet with the opposition leader, opting instead for consultation by letter. Exchange. 

 Is there an agreement between the government and the opposition parties today? Is there a platform where the two can sit at a table and discuss the contentious issues that separate them? Is there a place that can facilitate the dialogue if needed? Pakistan faces the prospect of staggered national and provincial assemblies and the associated financial and political ramifications during the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.

Can’t the two parties agree on a date when elections for all assemblies could be held simultaneously, which would save billions of rupees and allow for more political stability? 

 In the past, the security forces have played an important role in dealing with contending political parties, as happened in December 2014. Apparently, the elusive common ground no longer benefit from this summoning power. Friendly countries like Saudi Arabia have mediated in the past when no one in the country was powerful enough to speak between the two sides.

Currently, there are almost no friendly countries that have an advantage on both sides. We do not have a statesmanlike Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, who in the 1980s had a knack for bringing together warlike political parties like the PML-N and the PPP.

 Today, only public pressure, supported by the media, can bring political parties into dialogue with one another. Can citizens, civil society, and the media play an impartial role in finding elusive common ground and making the impossible possible? Let’s not forget the price of the bankruptcies we paid in 1969 and 1977.

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