Do not rule out anything
It was in the making all along. The signs were there that a future deal was in the making between the PPP and the PNCR. What was surprising was the suddenness with which things have happened, so much so that the PNCR has announced that it would be making another attempt to enter into talks with the PPP on power sharing.
Despite the signs of an impending political deal, the suddenness of this announcement was most inexplicable. It dropped right out of thin air. Not the sort of thing you would expect in the relations between the two parties which have been at odds since 1955. The PNCR would hardly be saying that it would be making a new attempt unless it received some signal from within the PPP that they are open to such discussions.
The history of political accommodation between the two parties has not been productive. All the attempts of the PPP to have an accommodation with the PNC were rebuffed. Then in 1985, the PNC, facing problems from the Americans and facing General Elections the same year, brokered preliminary discussions on unity. The talks produced some suggestions but nothing was formalized at the level of Cabinet. And when Forbes Burnham’s heart gave out of him the same year, his successor would have no time with these unity talks and abandoned the process.
Long before those talks between the PPP and the PNC ended, Burnham used the excuse of criticisms by the PPP of his government to scuttle then ongoing discussions. Burnham was never serious about unity and there is no reason at the moment why the PPP should be interested in shared governance. This is why the announcement by the PNCR that it would be engaging the ruling PPP in talks about shared governance makes no sense.
After the 1997 elections, the dialogue talks that emerged out of the Hermanston Accord got nowhere and similarly the constructive engagement talks of a few years later left a bitter taste in the mouth of the PNCR.
Its timing of this recent announcement by the main opposition party is even all the more surprising because the PNCR has just emerged out of a process of preparing a dossier of what it deems extra judicial killings and has even gone so far as to accuse the government of complicity with a drug lord. It has adopted a process of selective attendance of the National Assembly, the place where the government feels that the real process of political cooperation should be centered. Against this background, there was nothing to suggest that anything had changed in the relationship between the two parties and thus very little to suggest that there is an environment conducive to dialogue between the two sides.
What therefore are we to make of this announcement by the PNCR that it will attempt to reengage the PPP in talks about shared governance? The main opposition party has claimed that these talks will be about constitutional change; it will be a push for shared governance but it will not agree to amendments of term limits. But the only interest that the PPP could have at the moment for any deal with the PNCR would be about an abolition of term limits. And not all of the PPP’s leadership, only the faction that is supporting an abolition of term limits.
The PPP has not indicated that it is interested in any talks with the PNCR. This is a Local Government Election year and it is hard to see how talks about shared governance can be carried out months away from a local polls, especially considering the fact that the PPP felt that the PNCR did not keep its end of the bargain as regards the political deal between the two parties after the 2006 General Elections when they combined to deny the AFC any Chairmanship of the Regions.
The PNCR is also proposing these talks at a time when it is perhaps at its weakest. It has been unable to force the resignation of the government over the spy computer issue; it has even been unable to force the Minister of Health to step down. Right now also there are questions over the leadership of the main opposition and thus the PNCR will not be entering any talks with the PPP from a position of strength. It will therefore be in more defensive position and unable to press the PPP. In short, the PPP will have the upper hand and will be calling the shots in any negotiations.
The PNCR insists that the proposed talks are not about term limits. But can such an issue be avoided? Suppose the PPP demands that as part of any shared governance deal, the PNC accede to a constitutional amendment that would facilitate the abolition of presidential term limits. Would the PNCR allow this term limits issue to stand in the way of a major power sharing deal which would see it be part of the government?
Suppose the PPP says to the PNCR, we will offer you a certain number of Cabinet seats and a greater say in government policy, in return for support for a constitutional amendment that would allow term limits. Would the PNCR say no to such a deal? Can they?