Bhutto about-turn: Behind the PPP plan to back Pakistan’s new government

What is the party’s reasoning behind joining a coalition with its longtime rivals without cabinet positions?

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Tuesday announced that PPP will join government coalition without taking any cabinet positions.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Tuesday announced that the PPP will join a government coalition without taking any cabinet positions [Sohail Shahzad/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan: On January 19, three weeks before Pakistan’s general elections, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, former foreign minister and chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), appeared for an interview on a private news channel.

Criticising the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leadership – consisting of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif – the PPP chief said that the PMLN’s policies had hurt the country’s economy.

When the host asked Bhutto Zardari if he would be open to the idea of forming a coalition with the PMLN after the February 8 elections, if either party failed to secure a majority on its own, the 35-year-old scion of Pakistan’s Bhutto family was categorical in his response.

“Who told you that the PPP will form a coalition government with them [PMLN]? I have stated this before as well: ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’,” he said.

Less than four weeks later, Bhutto Zardari’s father, former president Asif Ali Zardari, held a press conference alongside leaders of various parties, including the PMLN, announcing a coalition government on February 13.

“God willing, we will take Pakistan out of difficulty,” Zardari said, five days after the February 8 vote. He downplayed past rivalries, saying, “Opposition happens in elections. It was electioneering opposition, not ideological opposition.”

The February 8 polls ended with independent candidates backed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) winning 93 seats, despite the party facing a severe crackdown from government agencies and security forces in the weeks before the elections. In January, the party was even denied the use of its election symbol, the cricket bat.

Still, despite emerging as the country’s most popular party in the elections, the PTI insists that it would have received an even heavier mandate if the election had not been “stolen” through “massive rigging”.

The PMLN managed to secure 75 seats while PPP came in third place with 54 seats, an improvement of 11 seats from their previous showing in 2018. Overall, a total of 13 different parties managed to win seats, of which six secured only one.

With 134 seats required for a simple majority out of the 266 directly contested seats, the results meant no party would be able to form a government on its own.

And while the PPP did not have the numbers to lead a coalition government, it had enough strength to be the kingmaker, deciding and influencing who next rules Pakistan.

Taj Haider, a senior PPP leader and a member of the Senate, the upper house of Pakistan’s parliament, said that the party had been open to partnering with any other group ready to help bring stability to the country after the elections.

“With Pakistan in such dire political and economic crisis, we understood the urgency to do something to come out of this chaos,” Haider, who also heads the PPP’s central election cell, told Al Jazeera. “The PPP said we will support any party for formation of government. PMLN came to us, but the PTI never did. In fact, it categorically, and insultingly said we will not talk to you.”

The six-party coalition formed this week and led by the PMLN and PPP, looks set to form the next government in Pakistan, with more than 150 seats among them.

PMLN leader Shehbaz Sharif has been anointed as the coalition’s nominee for premiership, in what many observers say is a reincarnation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government.

The PDM coalition, under Shehbaz Sharif’s premiership, ruled for 16 months between April 2022 and August 2023, after it managed to topple the PTI government of Imran Khan through a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

The PMLN and PPP were part of a coalition between April 2022 till August 2023.
The PMLN and PPP were part of a ruling coalition between April 2022 and August 2023 [Waqar Hussein/EPA]

The PDM government, in which Bhutto Zardari was the foreign minister along with other PPP ministers in the cabinet, saw an alarming decline in Pakistan’s economic health, as the country veered on the verge of default. Massive floods, in which the country suffered losses of more than $30bn and millions of people were displaced, compounded Pakistan’s challenges.

This time, Bhutto Zardari has said that the PPP would not join the cabinet.

Explaining the rationale, Sherry Rehman, the vice president of the PPP, said that politics was not a “zero-sum game”.

“We know whoever makes government cannot function without us. The PPP wants to give people hope in the democratic process, in parliament and in the country,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Our actions to forego certain benefits and use the time and space to work on the grassroots should help people see politics less about patronage and more about bringing much-needed change to people living under severe economic and climate stress,” Rehman added.

However, independent analysts questioned the PPP’s real motivations behind joining the coalition.

“This isn’t an ideal situation for any party, but especially the PPP. No party has a clear majority. A coalition was the only answer. The PPP wants to remain in the system,” Mehmal Sarfraz, a Lahore-based analyst told Al Jazeera.

Majid Nizami, another political analyst, said that the PPP strategy seemed to revolve around getting positions of power without having to be answerable to the electorate.

“They are seeking constitutional positions such as president, speaker of assembly, chairman of the Senate, other powerful positions. This allows them to hold influence, without being held accountable,” he told Al Jazeera.

The PPP would also wield influence in actual policymaking since the PMLN would always need the PPP’s support in getting bills passed in parliament, Nizami said.

“There is a good chance that the PPP will suggest to the PMLN to seek a more conciliatory approach towards PTI, but I also don’t think it will dump them and switch allegiances,” he added.

PPP’s Haider, though, conceded that another reason for the party’s reluctance to take the cabinet position was the cloud of reservation over the legitimacy of the results, in the eyes of many Pakistanis.

Still, Nizami thinks that despite being careful in its decision-making, the new PPP-PMLN partnership, with smaller parties in tow, cannot avoid being viewed as another avatar of the PDM.

“PTI and its incarcerated leader Imran Khan have always alleged that these parties’ band together to help each other, and this narrative will reinforce, yet again,” he added.

Both PMLN and PPP have a long imprint on Pakistani politics, with the two parties alternatively ruling the country from 1988 to 2018, except for a nine-year period – 1999 to 2008 – when the country was ruled by Pervez Musharraf after a military coup.

The PTI’s Khan, who came to power in 2018 with the backing of the Pakistani military establishment, has repeatedly said that he would never engage in any partnership with the PPP and the PMLN, parties whose leaders have faced corruption allegations for decades.

Currently behind bars on multiple convictions on charges he claims are politically motivated, Khan has stuck to that stance in the aftermath of the fractured mandate delivered in the February 8 election.

That approach is not helpful, claimed the PPP’s Haider.

“PTI may close the door all it wants, but we will not do that. We will take steps to bring all parties on one platform to overcome the crises faced by our country. Political stability is the need of the hour. If we need to take a step back in order to unite, we will.”

Source: Al Jazeera