Oct 20


Posted on Friday, October 20, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The split in the House of Sharif is in the open. Nawaz and Maryam Sharif stand apart from Shahbaz and Hamza Sharif. The former want to resist the forceful encroachments of the “Miltablishment” into the affairs of both state and government. The latter see this as a politically suicidal “confrontation” and are resigned to working within the parameters defined by Miltablishment.

The first public manifestation of this split came during the recent bye-elections in NA-120. Hamza exited the scene, leaving Maryam to campaign in a constituency nurtured by him in his capacity as manager of the PMLN electoral machine in the Punjab. The margin of victory – which was deemed critical to the political strategy of father and daughter who were hoping to build a narrative of martyrdom on it — seemed to prove Shahbaz’s point about the power of the Miltablishment. The PMLN vote was significantly eroded by three late developments: the birth of two pro-Miltablishment right wing religious parties that sliced off nearly 10% of the PMLN vote; the “disappearance” of a few core PMLN party workers tasked with galvanizing the voters on election day; and the eruption of over two dozen contenders with a few thousand votes among them that would have gone to the PMLN in normal circumstances.

Now Hamza has gone on TV to acknowledge the political differences in the House of Sharif. But both he and Maryam are now engaged in damage control. Hamza says that these political “differences” do not amount to an unbridgeable rift and he and his father are hoping to persuade Nawaz and Maryam to abandon the path of “confrontation” in the larger national interest. Maryam says she spent a delightful afternoon sipping tea with uncle Shahbaz and cousin Hamza and talk of a family rift is wishful thinking by detractors.

Meanwhile, the Miltablishment remains in an aggressive mood. Having come so far to knock out Nawaz Sharif, it is now silencing the voices of prominent television anchors and channels who are deemed “soft” on Sharif or don’t agree with its “state narrative”. Tactics range from pressurizing cable operators to take troublesome channels off air, calling up channel owners and ordering them to sack critical anchors and attacking dissidents on social media as unpatriotic agents of foreign powers.

Now, in an unprecedented intervention, the army chief has publicly dilated on the “ill-health” of the economy and expressed concern that this is hurting “national security”. Although doomsday scenarios of the economy have been floating around for decades and the situation today is not as bad as on several occasions in the past, this is another damning indictment of the Sharif regime and finance minister Ishaq Dar (he is also in the Miltablishment’s gunsights like his boss Nawaz Sharif). The PMLN prides itself with restoring growth and foreign investment. Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister in charge of CPEC, has aggressively rebutted the charges, while Khaqan Abbasi, the prime minister, has hurriedly called a meeting to brief the army chief of the “true” situation and allay his fears. But it may be noted that this Miltablishment “intervention” is no less significant than its intervention some years ago in which unfounded allegations of multi-billion dollar “corruption” of the political elite in Sindh were linked to the growth of “terrorism”, paving the way for the arrest of key aides and confidantes of PPP leader Asif Zardari, the removal of a chief minister and the consolidation of unequivocal Miltablishment sway in the province.

But if the political outlook for Nawaz Sharif is not good, the fact remains that the Miltablishment is in no position to impose martial law or even install a hand-picked “technocratic” regime in Islamabad. The Miltablishment has alienated both mainstream parties PPP and PMLN without ensuring that the PTI will win the next elections or indeed play ball even if it does. In fact, it cannot even depend on the support of the two mainstream religious parties Jamaat I Islami and Jamiat I Ulema Islam. Its efforts to build an anti-Nawaz Forward Bloc in the PMLN are also floundering. Nor can it count on the judiciary to approve any such intervention. Indeed, the prospect of sitting in the hot seat with a bristling international community breathing down its neck must be very unsettling. Under the circumstances, martial law can be ruled out.

A technocratic government is also a non-starter. There is no constitutional way to bring it about or sanction it. The only situation in which it may be theoretically possible with the support of the judiciary is one in which elections have been called, parliament has been dissolved and a neutral federal interim government is in place which can be leaned upon to extend its existence and “clean up” the mess. But this would lead to a breakdown of federal-provincial relations and put unbearable strain on state, economy and society.

The tragedy of the nation is that those who would hold the Sharifs and Zardaris accountable are themselves unaccountable and don’t inspire confidence.

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