ISLAMABAD - Senior Pakistan People’s Party leader Senator Sherry Rehman argued the PPP has never saw the Panama leaks as an opportunity to weaken Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but took it as an opening to promote across-the-board accountability in the country.

In an exclusive interview with The Nation at her residence here yesterday, she said the PPP’s response to the Panama Papers scandal was mature and pro-democracy. “Unfortunately, it was being seen as a tactical political play to weaken an embattled PM, which it is not. For the PPP it was an opportunity to enhance the process of institutional accountability across the board,” she asserted.

“How can you call the PPP a friendly opposition? First of all, the party sees itself as the institutional buffer against extra-constitutional change because it has paid the highest price across two generations for resisting authoritarian models of power in Pakistan. PPP is always in the vanguard of revolution or devolution and because the country needs evolution, its politics was misunderstood for friendly opposition,” the legislator said.

Senator Rehman said the PPP privileged parliament as the custodian of public interests, “so we put our focus on building its power. However, as you see today, democracy has been treated by the incumbent government as only an electoral contest where rule by cabal continues to trample over rights and accountability.”

Senator Rehman said the PML-N may retain its ‘patronage-fuelled electoral machine in the Punjab’, but it has taken a ‘huge existential political hit in terms of public credibility.’

“In all its years again in power it has not paid attention to the need for change in today’s public landscape. I know that in many areas kinship and baradari hold more water than broader political ideology, but Pakistani people want more from their leadership, which is a good sign; it applies to all of us,” she said.

Senator Rehman said former President Asif Ali Zardari did not want exclusive party leadership and had no craving to challenge Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s authority as the PPP chairman.

She said the transfer of power to Bilawal was a bit like devolution of power from the presidency to the parliament’s leader that Zardari spearheaded ‘voluntarily and unilaterally.’ She said Zardari will certainly return home soon.

She said Zardari did not opt to become the PPP Parliamentarians’ president. “Just like Bilawal did not choose to become chair of the PPP, it was a crown of thorns put on his head by the Central Executive Committee of the party.”

She said the PPP was in the position of leading a historic turn in the chronology of Pakistan’s social contract. “As Bilawal Bhutto Zardari takes frontline responsibilities, the party is trying to address new national challenges, while retaining commitment to old ones,” she added.

She said the 2018 elections really were not that far away, and facing the twin challenges of internal reform while preparing for that contest was obviously on the party leadership’s radar.

“We all know that there is an obvious political vacuum in spaces where the PPP was defeated, or cheated out of the election in the returning officers election (2013), especially in the Punjab heartland. By and large, as the politics of the right throws up more discontent in these areas, the PPP is beginning to step back in, slowly but surely. There is no reason for it not to make substantial gains in a level-playing field in the next round,” she elaborated.

The PPP leader said all three of Benazir Bhutto’s children had politics running through their blood. “I see Aseefa as someone who is indeed going to commit her future to a bigger role in the PPP, and her elder brother, Bilawal, is very much the anointed chairman of the party. I am sure she will do what she can to support his leadership,” she reasoned.

On a possible alliance between the PPP and the PTI in the 2018 polls, she said: “In politics you never close doors. But a grand electoral alliance is another thing entirely.” She said the future of the PPP could only be seen as bright. From the grassroots organization in the provinces to its policy bodies, reform and reinvention is not just in the air but in the nuts and bolts of all the party bodies as well.

The PPP leader said as the third generation of the PPP gears itself up to build constituencies for reform in Pakistan. “Look at how it has led every generational challenge. The party has retained a strong connection to its first manifesto. That was the time of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, when power was concentrated in a small coterie of families. For breaking that oligarchy, the party has never quite been forgiven, she said.

In its second phase, “articulated so brilliantly by Benazir Bhutto in her book titled “Reconciliation”, the PPP became the custodian of managing the first transition to democracy and the politics of devolution, she said.

The lawmaker said the public needed to fight extremism, intolerance, terrorism, and the PPP at all times had been steadfast in holding the line while others shook in their resolve.

“Its iconic leader, Benazir Bhutto, fell to a terrorist assault, but did not surrender her principled message of resistance to violent extremism.” she said.