For whom the bell tolls | Najam Sethi

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The bell has begun to toll. Most people think it is tolling for the general elections. Although these are constitutionally scheduled to be held no later than September 2018, there are apprehensions these could be delayed. The bell could also be tolling for the House of Sharif, particularly Nawaz Sharif. Most people are convinced that the scales of justice are weighted against him. What are the odds, and consequences, of the tolling of the bell?

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has received over 2000 petitions against constituency delimitations. It has two months in which to appraise and redress them before the national and provincial parliaments are dissolved and electioneering begins in earnest. It is also certain that most decisions of the ECP will be challenged in the High Courts because constituency revisions are critically impacting the fate of traditional candidates. Some may even appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP). Unless some swift solutions are found by the ECP and courts, God alone knows how this matter will be resolved without postponing elections.

Then there is the matter of caretaker governments. Finding consensus candidates in Balochistan and Sindh should not be difficult because the major players there are openly aligned with the powerful Miltablishment that calls the shots. But Islamabad, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will be less soluble and the ECP may have to step in to clear the decks. There will be unsavoury controversy, conspiracies are bound to be imputed and the electoral waters will be muddied. To top it all, scores of candidates are likely to clutch at Constitutional Articles 62 and 63 or Iqama-type inconsistencies to challenge their opponents’ nomination papers.

The fate of Nawaz Sharif’s accountability trial will also impinge on elections. If he is knocked out, the PMLN will have to consider whether to boycott elections or go down fighting with one hand tied behind its back. In the immediate aftermath, there are bound to be defections from the PMLN. Their significance will depend on how successfully Nawaz Sharif can reinforce his perception as the victim of injustice, who is turning to the people for salvation. So far, going by the big crowds he is drawing to his jalsas in comparison with the rather indifferent showing of his political opponents, he is not doing badly. But the mood of his detractors is turning ugly, a sign of what lies ahead.

The Geo/Jang Group that is propping up the Sharifs’ narrative is for the chop. “Invisible” forces have leaned on cable operators across large swathes of the country, to shut down all the group’s channels. PEMRA is helpless in redressing their complaints. They are losing money because their ads are trailing off and have therefore delayed salaries to their employees. But the Supreme Court has ordered them to “beg or borrow” and cough up. The court accuses them of receiving the largest chunk of public sector ads because of their pro-government stance but is silent in the face of their higher ranking and ratings that attract these ads even from the private sector on commercial merit. Now Saleem Safi, a top GEO journalist, who continues to ask awkward questions about the direction in which Pakistan is being herded, has been targeted – some “invisible” goons attacked his home and beat up his guard for resisting them. And so it goes on.

We are told that any talk of a judicial martial law in the offing, is hogwash. This is reassuring. But one cannot help but compare today’s situation to what transpired in December 1997 when the then CJP, Sajjad Ali Shah, wrote to the then army chief for backing against, and protection from, the government of the day. The CJP’s order was not carried out. It was forwarded to the Defense Ministry on the plea that GHQ answers to it rather than to the SC. Today, we are informed, if any order is passed by the CJP, the army “will not remain in barracks” if it is resisted by the government or parliament.

In fact, an unprecedented alignment of political forces is now grouping to “reform the country”. The original child of the Miltablishment, Nawaz Sharif, has become a dangerous outcast. The original bête noir of the Miltablishment, Asif Zardari, has become its blue-eyed boy. The judiciary, which has historically been the handmaiden of the executive arm of government, has suddenly become “independent” with the backing of the Miltablishment even though its “independence” was won from the same Miltablishment not so long ago with the struggle of the Lawyers Movement and democratic political forces. And the media that fought to win its independence from the Miltablishment a decade ago has suddenly acquiesced in its favour without a whimper.

Under the circumstances, we are right to wonder for whom the bell tolls.