While the PML-N Trudges On, Pakistan’s Main Opposition Parties Look To The Future With “Young” Idealists

Since he founded Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996 at the age of 44, Imran Khan has been the consummate “young man” of Pakistani’s politics which has increasingly become an old man’s game, as politics is in most countries. PTI supporters attest that Imran Khan’s passion, eloquence and passionate belief in reform of Pakistan’s internal and foreign policies make up for the fact that his international “experience” has been on the cricket pitch rather than in the halls of government.

At the age of 65, Imran Khan still exhibits the youthful energy of an “opposition survivor” who has seen many opponents come and go. But today, a man who inherited the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at age 19 is extremely young by the political leadership standards of any country. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had often been written off by observers when he stepped in to fill the shoes of his late mother Benazir Bhutto who was tragically assassinated in 2007.

Since then, Bilawal has matured into his role and has been campaigning for Pakistan’s forthcoming general elections in a spirit of optimism, that in some ways mirrors that of Imran Khan. While the attitudes and backgrounds of both men are different, it is eye-opening that in a country whose politics is so often dominated by the old, the men leading Pakistan’s two main opposition parties both represent a “young” Pakistan – Bilawal because he is extremely young himself and Imran Khan because his political movement took shape when he himself was still younger than the average political leader.

While most polls show that a battered PML-N will come out on top in this summer’s election, anything could still happen between now and then. As I wrote earlier today,

“Pakistan’s elections aren’t going to produce a victory for an unknown quantity in the style of Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK and the young Sebastian Kurz in Austria – all of which were  absurdly blamed on “Russian meddling”. Based on current opinion polls, the Pakistani elections will be notable for the second largest party switching from the centre-left/progressive Pakistan People’s Party to the populist, big tent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). By this same logic, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) [PML-N] appears like it will retain power.

Of course, as it is in every parliamentary system, it is the arithmetic of the votes that counts more than absolute popularity. There is a very strong possibility that the PML-N may need to coalesce with smaller parties to form a government, which would not be a difficult matter to achieve in any case, assuming past allies of the PML-N perform on-par with the last election cycle. What is more interesting, is whether a PTI/PPP coalition could form.

At the moment this seems unlikely for several reasons. First of all, previous attempts have failedmiserably, leading to open squabbles and allegations flying between PTI and PPP big wigs. Secondly, PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has ruled out coalescing with any party, although Germany’s SPD said the same and now they are set to form a coalition with their CDU opponents. Finally, there is the matter of PTI’s credibility. PTI’s charismatic leader, former cricket superstar Imran Khan has built a career on trashing all of the establishment parties and therefore could damage his “outsider” image, were he to do what many opposition parties do and jump at a chance to attain some degree of power via a coalition with an older party, whether this is the PPP or the PML-Q.

Thus far, all of these matters concern internal issues pertaining to Pakistan’s parliamentary system. But this is where the big Russia lie could come in. The US which coined the contemporary “Russia meddles in elections” narrative, has a history of meddling in Pakistani political transitions, often with blood soaked results. Today, Pakistan is more confident and independent than in the past, but it is also in the midst of a serious downturn in relations with the US”.

A recent interview that Bilawal conducted with RT shows some remarkable similarities between himself and Imran Khan on major foreign policy issues. Both have condemned the countryproductive role the US is playing in Afghanistan, both have spoken of a need to re-establish positive relations with Iran, both speak positively about China’s steadfast friendship with Pakistan (as any sane Pakistani politician would, and while the issue of Syria remains partly tainted with sectarian suspicions of the past, both have stated their opposition to US actions taken against Syria.

Many PPP supporters will be quick to point out that the PPP’s position on embracing multipolarity comes from a more sincere historic position than Imran Khan’s more populist overtones. However, if PTI could swallow its “outsider pride” and align with the PPP, if this would amount to the creation of a  broadly progressive coalition that could govern without the PML-N. In this sense Imran Khan could lend the credibility to a would-be PPP partner that comes with personal age, while a pact with the PPP could provide a level of mature status to the politically young PTI.

If such a post-electoral pact were to happen, this could mean that the country could benefit from an internal win-win political arrangement,  assuming that both party machines could agree to overcome the accusations of the past. Parliamentary politics often leads to surprising coalitions among former rivals that is unknown in strong presidential systems or in states where one party remains dominant. In Paksitan though, there is real potential for a wider progressive alliance should the electoral results and broadly progressive ideologies be able to over come the skulduggery of party politics.

Blow is Bilawal Bhutto’s interview with RT’s Sameera Khan where he outlines his incredibly intelligent foreign policy positions.

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