Will the Panamaleaks amount to anything? Will the opposition band together to heave out Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the next few months? Will General Raheel Sharif get an extension in service?
Lay folk think the Panamaleaks storm has passed. The PMLN has successfully defused the crisis by dragging it over the last three months. But Mr Sharif is still not out of the woods. One petition before the Election Commission, in particular, could pose problems. Public statements by Mr Sharif’s sons allude to shares in offshore properties in the name of Mariam Nawaz Sharif that were not declared by Mr Sharif in his statement of assets and wealth before the EC in 2013 in which she was listed as a “dependent” with no assets. This minor technical point about “concealment” could “disqualify” him from remaining a member of parliament. But much the same sort of considerations by the EC could knock out Imran Khan – he didn’t declare his offshore company to the EC in 2013 – and create an unprecedented political crisis that the EC may wish to avoid.
The opposition, meanwhile, is still trying to get its act together. The PTI is flapping about in safe Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa organizing peaceful protests instead of threatening dharnas in Islamabad or long marches to Raiwind in Lahore. The party is riven with internal splits and its public following has dwindled. Its strategy is to try to keep the pot of discontent boiling in the hope that Mr Sharif blunders into it or is pushed into it by the notorious “third umpire’. The PPP is embroiled in a delicate balancing act in Sindh, trying to clutch at the federal government while holding the military establishment at bay. Any further encroachment by the Rangers on its political turf will seriously undermine its feudally constructed support base. Therefore it will resist the same fate in interior Sindh that the MQM faced in urban Karachi when the Rangers went in all guns blazing under Constitutional Article 147. In exchange for the federal government’s support in weaning the Rangers away from interior Sindh, the PPP is mulling the idea of softening its position on the Pananaleaks TORs or law proposed by the PMLN. The dilemma for Mr Asif Zardari is how to save his own skin while dispatching Mr Sharif with the help of Imran Khan and the military establishment. The dilemma for Mr Sharif is how to save his own skin by not antagonising the military establishment by favouring Mr Zardari in Sindh. Rational choice theory would advise both to stick close to each other instead of the military establishment that wants to be rid of both of them asap.
Meanwhile, Dr Tahir ul Qadri is gearing up to whip up a small storm in Lahore focused on the Model Town “martyrs” of 2014. The good doctor can expect the pro-establishment media to publicise the contents of the judicial report and JIT pertaining to the incident that squarely pin responsibility on the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, and his minions in the administration. But if the Sharifs handle the situation delicately and succeed in precluding violence, Dr Qadri will huff and puff without bringing the house down.
It is the ubiquitous military establishment that has some aces up its sleeve. The civilian pro-military suspects on television are sanguine in their belief that if the generals have decided its time for “tabdeeli”, “they” will find ways and means to “wrap” up the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris. Indeed, it can be argued that the “attack” on the “pro-democracy” Geo-Jang Group last week by invisible forces was meant to sideline it on the eve of the conspiracy to strangulate “democracy” in Pakistan (Geo’s shrill pro-democracy transmission when the military coup was hiccupping in Turkey is memorable if only for the oblique but unmistakable message it sent to the military establishment at home).
All this while, the debate remains fixated on whether or not an extension in the tenure of General Sharif as COAS will solve Mr Sharif’s own tenure problem. But the logic of the situation suggests that there is no link between the two. First, Mr Sharif is not inclined to change the rules of military succession. But if he were, General Sharif would find himself in a bit of a spot for having earlier publicly declined to accept any such extension. By accepting it now and not overthrowing his benefactor would lead to the unpalatable charge of the general sacrificing the “national” interest at the altar of his own personal interest. Second, it is inconceivable that an honourable and upright soldier like General Sharif would like to wade into such treacherous political waters in such controversial circumstances in which all the political parties (save one), civil society groups, lawyers, judges and most media are resolutely opposed to any military takeover regardless of the extent of corruption and incompetence among their elected representatives.
Bookies are giving even odds for and against “tabdeeli” this year. Ladies and Gentlemen, place your bets.