Sep 15

Another impasse?

Posted on Friday, September 15, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Another impasse?

Two women are slugging it out in NA-120 Lahore. One is Kulsum Nawaz, the ailing and absent wife of a recently ousted prime minister. The other is Dr Yasmin Rashid, a fiery stalwart of the PTI opposition. Both sides claim this is a make or break moment not for themselves but for the fortunes of their respective parties and leaders. How’s that?

NA-120 has been won by Nawaz Sharif or his PMLN nominee since 1985 with increasing margins every time except in 2013. But this time the PMLN is determined to win by the biggest ever margin. The idea is to demonstrate that far from being cowed down by a Supreme Court judgement, the popular vote is still for the ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Indeed, the hope is that a big win will bring some popular pressure to relent on the unaccountable institutions of the state that are gunning for Nawaz Sharif while gearing up the PMLN to win the next elections.

This election is also about Mariam Nawaz Sharif. She is staking her political career by managing the campaign on behalf not just of her mother but also of her father and her father’s party. If she succeeds in her efforts, she can rightfully claim to have stepped out of the anonymity of social media into the full glare of hardcore everyday politics in her own right. The battle is therefore also for the heir-apparent of the PMLN.  Will it remain in the hands of Nawaz Sharif through his daughter Mariam or will it pass to his brother Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza who heads the PMLN machine in Punjab?

The split in the House of Sharif is palpable. It is not just about who will lead the party and government but also about what sort of policies to follow vis a vis the military and judiciary in the future. The Nawaz camp wants to establish the primacy of the popular vote by making the military subservient to the executive and the Supreme Court accountable to parliament. The Shahbaz camp doesn’t want to mess with either institution whose capriciousness remains the undoing of many a party and many a leader.

The fate of NA-120 is also likely to stir the embers of a debate about when to hold the next elections. If the PMLN wins big, there will be arguments for an early election to carry the momentum forward before the sympathy of the “Iqama farce” subsides in the face of a new onslaught by NAB under the direct command of the SC. But this will be countered by the argument that the call for an early election is high risk for several reasons: a dissolution of the national assembly will be successfully challenged in the Supreme Court if it doesn’t simultaneously lead to a dissolution of the provincial assemblies which are not in the hands of the PMLN and if it leads to a general election without accounting for the results of the new census which won’t be available until next year. In that case, the argument goes, the stage may be set for a “neutral” interim government in Islamabad that is effectively controlled by the military and SC and which puts paid to all Nawaz-camp hopes and ambitions.

In the end, therefore, the significance of NA-120 may conceivably become a distant dot on the political landscape of the country. The NAB trial in the next six months may reveal ugly realities and make the military and Supreme Court doubly unforgiving and cripple the Nawaz family and camp. It may sow greater discord in the House of Sharif, with the Shahbaz camp openly distancing itself from the Nawaz camp in a bid to escape the fallout of the anti-corruption trail, thereby creating the necessary conditions for a split in the PMLN that could prove disastrous for both camps in the next elections.

We should not miss two other processes at work. One is the establishment’s pressure to reinvestigate the corruption cases against Asif Zardari. The other is the uncompromising position of the Election Commission and the SC against the money trail of Imran Khan and his PTI. If both opposition leaders are also knocked out, the stage will be set for yet another model of political evolution in Pakistan.

If the domestic scene is muggy, the foreign front is also shrouded in uncertainty following the announcement of an assertive anti-Pakistan policy by the Trump administration. The falling in line of China against core elements of Pakistan’s strategic regional policies is even more significant. A scramble of the army chief and the foreign minister to plead Pakistan’s case in foreign lands testifies to this ominous development. If the western or eastern border heats up amidst all this, the need for a united front of the crippled elected government, divided opposition and the all-powerful but alienated establishment will become acutely pressing precisely at a time when they are all at odds with each another. That cannot bode well for Pakistan.

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