Sep 1

From Panama to Iqama

Posted on Friday, September 1, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

From Panama to Iqama

Nawaz Sharif is facing two unprecedented and simultaneous challenges. The first is from a ubiquitous “Establishment” comprising the military-judicial organs of the state. The second is from within his own House of Sharif. How he deals with them in the next year or so will determine both his own longevity and that of the Muslim League in the political system of Pakistan.

?Nawaz Sharif faced a “semi-establishment” challenge in 1993 and rebounded to win the 1997 elections. The challenge in 1999 was greater because it came directly and forcefully from the military. But he lived to fight another day after ten years in exile, thanks partly to a popular revolt against General Pervez Musharraf led by the judiciary that was partial towards the PMLN and partly due to an alliance with Benazir Bhutto over a “Charter of Democracy”. The challenge this time, however, is formidable because it comes from both a rigidly hostile military and a superior judiciary under popular pressure.

?The second challenge is from within the House of Sharif. It is over two critical issues. The first is that of political succession or heir apparent. If Nawaz cannot be prime minister again, will he be succeeded by brother Shahbaz Sharif or daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif? The second issue is over policy. Should the PMLN take on the “Establishment” under Nawaz and Maryam or should it live and let live with it under Shahbaz Sharif. These are existential choices, both personal and political. Clashing with the new “Establishment” has brought the Sharifs to this pass.

The Shahbaz camp argues that a continuation of this “disastrous” policy will spell disaster for Nawaz, Maryam and the PMLN. Better for Nawaz and Maryam to step aside and let Shahbaz, along with Chaudhry Nisar, repair the damage by winning back the trust of the “Establishment” and keeping the PMLN united and strong. But the Nawaz camp disagrees. It hopes to counter the power of the “Establishment” with the force of the people. The GT Road show was a demonstration of popular will. NA-120 will be a real test. This is to be translated both into counter pressure on the judiciary as well as a win in the next elections that enables a reversal of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification or enthronement of Maryam as his successor. All current indications are that Nawaz Sharif has embarked upon this latter route. The chances of his success are dependent on certain critical factors.

Foremost among these is his ability to rouse the popular imagination in his support. From “Panana to Iqama” is a powerful “mountain to molehill” metaphor for the “injustice” meted out to him by the Supreme Court. This can be successfully exploited at the hustings. NAB, which is going to prosecute him, is progressively losing credibility. After Asif Zardari’s “easy” acquittal in a NAB court last week, and an imminent change of Chairman NAB soon, the watchdog is likely to suffer from instability, uncertainty and skepticism. If Nawaz can stave off NAB until the next elections, and if he can win them, he can revive his fortunes again. The critical necessary factor, though not sufficient, is winning the elections.

Until now, anyone who has opposed the “Establishment” by clutching at populism has been “martyred”. Nawaz’s chances of surviving and winning are therefore slim. Still, there are choices to be made.

The most important of these relates to the timing of the elections. One argument is to delay these until next year after capturing the Senate in March for development schemes and mega projects to materialize and impress voters. The other is to hold these straightaway while the “Panama to Iqama” metaphor is still alive in the popular imagination so that the sympathy vote can be tapped before the “Establishment” delivers some lethal blows in the NAB trial to erode that narrative.

There are powerful arguments for holding general elections immediately. It would be foolish to start wooing the crowds many months before the elections. Voter fatigue is bound to set in after the first few rallies. The PMLN voter is different from PTI supporters who have fueled Imran Khan’s unending dharnas and continuing jalsas. The PMLN voter is older and statically wedded to the status quo. The PTI supporter is youthful and dynamically fired up with notions of “revolutionary change”. Nawaz must not expect his historically pro-establishment supporters to remain enthusiastic for long, let alone stand up and fight for him in a situation when the “Establishment” will be moving heaven and earth to split his party and cut him down to size.

If the Nawaz strategy is to peg political survival on popular support, his best bet would be to hold an immediate general election pegged to the “Panana to Iqama” metaphor before it becomes stale or is rejected by subsequent developments. Winning it now will provide the muscle to thwart NAB and find space for a compromise with the “Establishment” jointly fashioned with Shahbaz Sharif.

Comments are closed for this entry.