Apart from the military’s support, the split in Opposition ranks in Pakistan is keeping Imran Khan government afloat.
On 30 July, the Pakistan Senate passed the Anti-Terrorism Act (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and the United Nations (Security Council) (Amendment) Bill, 2020 to satisfy the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to get the country off its grey list. The Lower House already gave its nod to the bills on Wednesday where the Opposition created a huge ruckus to stage its protest specifically against the Anti-Terrorism Act (Amendment) Bill, 2020. The Opposition contended that the Anti-Terrorism Act (Amendment) Bill, 2020 expands the applicability of Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (ATA) to the cases of “economic terrorism” and gives broad powers to law enforcement personnel to keep the accused under detention for three months (90 days) during the inquiry period. Given Pakistan’s history of misusing ATA to suppress any kind of dissent and rights-based movement, the Opposition members feared that the current amendment of the ATA will further aid the hybrid regime in Pakistan to subdue dissent and frighten the Opposition into submission.
Enforced disappearances which have become a hugely emotive issue in Pakistan are being reported since the 1970s, but the numbers accelerated since the 2000s, coinciding with the US-led “war on terror”. There have been more than 7,000 cases of enforced disappearances in FATA alone. According to Amnesty’s 2019 report, the risk of enforced disappearance was heightened in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which now includes erstwhile-FATA, with the promulgation of a similar law last year—the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance, 2019. Since 1986, nearly 20,000 MQM workers have been arrested in Sindh. The 2013 onwards crackdown on MQM, resulting in enforced disappearances had more than 130 political workers and 76 extra-judicial killings. In Balochistan, though, arrests were hardly ever made under the Anti-Terrorism Act or other laws but extrajudicial enforced disappearances are the norm. Families of Baloch missing persons, numbering more than 22,000, have been protesting for years to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. The Opposition feared that under the garb of FATF compliance, the proposed law might again be misused to carry out enforced disappearances at an accelerated rate. However, in a rush to pass FATF related legislation, the Khan government decided to avoid any controversies and got the bill passed with minor amendments as suggested by the Opposition.
Fearing obstruction in the Senate where the Opposition is in a stronger position, the government had already prepared for the joint sitting of the two Houses in case the bill was not passed. But to everyone’s surprise, the amendment bill sailed smoothly through the Senate with minor amendments. As a quid pro quo to get the FATF related bills passed, the government at the last minute agreed to the Opposition’s demand to drop the controversial “economic terrorism” aspect of the bill. By this single stroke, Imran Khan once again kept the Opposition fragmented and managed to navigate the mounting pressure from the military to get his act together.
It is important to note that the two bills were not originally on the agenda of the Upper House, but the government issued a supplementary agenda to get the bills passed to meet the 6 August deadline to fulfil FATF requirements. Pakistan’s failure to exit from FATF grey list poses a risk to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan worth US$6 billion, which was sanctioned in 2019. Pakistan is also in a rush to curry American favour ahead of the intra-Afghan talks and US elections by fulfilling its FATF requirements. In this situation, Imran Khan decided not to lock horns with the Opposition and avoid another “Azadi March” type scenario
Pakistan’s dwindling economy took another hit with the spread of Covid-19. Imran Khan’s inept handling of the pandemic, economy, provincial relations, and corruption scandals has frayed his relations with the military establishment. Further, Imran Khan’s fallout with his long-trusted ally, Jahangir Tareen, over the sugarcane scandal has further weakened his position in case the military eventually decides to pull the plug on him.
The controversial clauses of the amendment bill had given yet another opportunity for the Opposition to form a united front against the PTI government. After creating a huge ruckus in the National Assembly over the passing of the controversial ATA amendment bill, the PML-N president and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Shehbaz Sharif reached out to PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman via phone to discuss the future course of action.
According to some reports, the three leaders decided to constitute a committee comprising senators from the joint Opposition to deliberate the FATF-related legislation and ensure it is in the “country’s best interests”. Further, PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari conducted multiple meetings with Fazlur Rehman and Shehbaz Sharif in Lahore before the multi-party conference, which the Opposition had planned to hold after Eid Ul Azha. Bilawal told the media that “all Opposition parties were on one page in their movement against the PTI government, which” he alleged “had become a hazard for the country”.
However, on Thursday, the JUI-F was the only Opposition party in the Senate which opposed the ATA amendment bill. In a replay of the February 2020 events, when PPP and PML-N parted ways with the JUI-F during the Azadi march, the two parties once again abandoned the Fazlur Rehman-led JUI-F in the Senate. In February 2020, Fazlur Rehman distanced his party, JUI-F, from the Opposition parties’ alliance led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and formed a new Opposition party’s alliance comprising six parties. The major bone of contention which Fazlur Rehman had with both PML-N and PPP was their lack of support to the Azadi march. The JUI-F leader targeted both the parties for playing reconciliatory politics by supporting the government on the COAS (Chief of Army Staff) extension bill. Apart from the military’s support, the split in Opposition ranks in Pakistan is one of the major reasons which is keeping the Imran Khan government afloat despite its dismal performance during the Covid-19 crisis, flawed economic policies, and corruption scandals.
Dr Yatharth Kachiar is a Research Associate at Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) with a focus on the AF-Pak region. She also holds a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She can be reached at @YKachiar on Twitter. Aveek Sen works on cybersecurity and the geopolitics of India’s neighbourhood focusing on PAI and Bangladesh. Find him on Twitter @aveeksen.