Leaders of the opposition parties on Sunday announced their plans to "launch protests inside and outside the parliament after Eidul Fitr" and hold an All Parties Conference (APC) to "chalk out a joint strategy on how to tackle the problems facing Pakistan".
The announcement was made by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari at a press conference that followed an iftar-dinner he hosted at Zardari House in Islamabad and which was attended by a delegation of arch rivals-turned-allies PML-N and other major opposition parties.
"Today we invited all the opposition leaders to this iftar-dinner and I am thankful that they came," Bilawal said.
"We have decided to keep on meeting to discuss Pakistan's issues and find solutions to the people's problems," Bilawal added before announcing the opposition parties' plan to launch protests post-Eid.
Bilawal also said that JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman has called an All Parties Conference (APC) after Eid where a joint strategy against the government will be finalised.
The JUI-F leader corroborated the plan himself, saying that "Pakistan is emerging as a weak country in the world due to some incapable people ascending to power."
Rehman said that "during the APC a joint strategy for all opposition parties will be identified so as to stabilise this sinking ship".
PML-N's Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that "there is an agreement among opposition parties that the government has failed to run this government."
"We will keep on consulting each other and after Eid there will be an APC where it will be decided what the opposition's joint strategy should be," he added.
Abbasi, the former premier, said that despite the alliance "the opposition parties' philosophy and their take on policy matters could be different." He also said that "the goal as of today is not to throw out the government but to solve Pakistan's problems such as inflation as providing economic stability."
National Party chief Mir Hasil Bizenjo said that "the APC after Eid will give birth to a new and historic opposition alliance." He further said that "the opposition can overturn the incumbent government tomorrow if it wants but that's not the only issue as there are now a plethora of other problems facing the country."
PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz, meanwhile, thanked Bilawal for inviting her to the iftar-dinner. She said that she "accepted the invitation because Bilawal had paid us a condolence visit after my mother's death which was our first meeting contrary to media reports".
She defended the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, saying that the civilian governments managed to finish two successive terms because of that accord. "This had never happened before," she added. "That Charter of Democracy did not end there. The new generation will keep on adding to it."
Maryam acknowledged that "the PML-N and PPP have been arch rivals" but said that "our upbringing is such that when we become allies we also do that with full sincerity."
Bilawal said that "the CoD was not against the establishment", and stressed that "today's gathering as well is not against anyone but is in favour of Pakistan and its people."
Earlier, Maryam's convoy, which includes Captain Safdar, former information minister Pervaiz Rasheed and party spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb, had Abbasi's residence where a meeting was held. Hamza Shahbaz had also joined in shortly before the PML-N delegation left for Zardari House.
Bilawal had greeted and received the PML-N delegation upon their arrival. The PPP chairman embraced and shook hands with Hamza before inviting the party leaders in.
The iftar-dinner was also attended by Jamaat-i-Islami's Liaqat Baloch, Qaumi Watan Party Chairman Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao as well as Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir.
JUI-F's Rehman was unable to make it in time for the iftar-dinner. He, however, arrived before the leaders began their discussions.
The assortment of opposition leaders held discussions lasting almost two hours ahead of their press conference.
What's on the menu?
While political analysts and media circles had given importance to the Iftar-dinner, opposition leaders had tried to downplay the occasion, terming it "merely a get-together."
Expressing concern over the prevailing economic situation in the country in the wake of increase in oil prices and unprecedented devaluation of Pakistani rupee against the US dollar, leaders of almost all major opposition parties have announced or hinted at launching a protest campaign against the government soon after Eid.
PPP Secretary General Farhatullah Babar had said that "it is not a formal meeting with a formal agenda ─ just a get-together of the opposition leaders as the party chairman (Bilawal) wants to establish a rapport with them".
However, he said, when "politicians meet, they do discuss politics" and "you can call it a tentative grand meeting of the opposition parties and it can be seen as a step towards a formal get-together in the near future."
The meeting took place at a time when PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif is in jail and his younger brother and party president Shahbaz Sharif in London.
Moreover, background interviews with a number of office-bearers and members of the opposition parties revealed that an internal discussion on the "mode of protest" is going on in all the parties.
With the religious parties announcing that they have decided to launch an anti-government movement soon after Eid, the two major opposition parties — the PPP and the PML-N — were still undecided on the timing.
Sources in the PPP had told Dawn earlier that launching an anti-government campaign was discussed by senior party leaders on Friday during a meeting of the party's core committee in Islamabad.
The participants were unanimous that if they did not protest against recent government decisions to increase the prices of electricity, gas and oil, it would "politically damage" the PPP. Party members were, however, undecided on the timing and mode of protest.
PPP sources told DawnNewsTV that they would make efforts so that the opposition could be united on a few points. The sources had said the gathering would discuss on which basis to launch an anti-government protest, and the PPP would also seek help from the PML-N for a bill on a separate province for South Punjab and Bahawalpur.
Who was invited?
The dinner was hosted by Bilawal and Asif Zardari, and was also attended by members of PPP's core committee.
From the PML-N, Maryam, Abbasi, Captain Safdar, Ayaz Sadiq, Pervaiz Rasheed, and Hamza Shahbaz attended.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman lead his party delegation at the dinner.
Mehmood Khan Achakzai, the Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party chief, was also invited but unable to secure a flight on such short notice, sources said.
Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali, who was invited, did not attend due to illness, but the party will be represented by Aimal Wali Khan and Zahid Khan, DawnNewsTV reported, citing party sources.
Balochistan National Party chief Akhtar Mengal was invited, but declined to attend.
JI Emir Sirajul Haq was invited to participate, but declined as he had other engagements. A delegation of top JI leaders, however, did represent the party at the gathering. Sources in the party had told DawnNewsTV that the JI had decided not to become part of any anti-government drive against the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leadership was not invited to participate in the meeting.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan on Sunday alleged that the purpose of the opposition parties' meeting was to determine a plan to secure ill-gotten wealth.
"The beneficiaries for whom this looted wealth was gathered will decide on a course of action to ensure security of this wealth," Awan alleged.
"They don't feel the pain of the people. At Iftar today, they will only think up plans to take care of their ill-gotten wealth abroad and how to protect Omni Group," she said.
The party tweeted on Sunday that "the people of Pakistan still remember the long list of their crimes that damaged Pakistan financially and morally".
Minister of State for Revenue Hammad Azhar in a tweet also pointed out that Maryam Nawaz had sidelined Hamza to lead the PML-N delegation at the Iftar. "It's obvious that PML-N has been reduced to being the personal property of the Sharifs. But what is interesting is that there is no concept of merit even within the Sharif family," he claimed.
"Hamza Shahbaz's 20-year-old political work goes to waste as Maryam sidelines him to lead PML-N's delegation," he said.