NAWAZ Sharif may have been disgraced, but he is not out yet. He has not given up hope of the Supreme Court stopping short of sending him home. He appears willing to face charges of financial wrongdoing in a trial court. Of course, there is no tradition in our political culture of any elected leader stepping down voluntarily on moral grounds however tainted he may be, nor is it a legal requirement.
More importantly, there is no such kind of public outrage that would bring millions out on the streets stepping up pressure on the prime minister to quit as witnessed in some other countries not that long ago. Another long-drawn legal battle in a trial court may take Sharif close to the end of his term, so believe his supporters who also appear confident of the party riding out the crisis and even of the possibility of sweeping the next elections. Sounds plausible? Perhaps, it does.
Yet this game of thrones being played out on the Pakistani political stage could take a more spectacular twist. It is not just about winning or losing a legal battle over the Panamagate scandal for the House of Sharif; it goes much beyond with so many other characters in the power play. Moreover, one must not rule out the possibility of the three-member bench delivering the ultimate humiliation to one of the most powerful elected leaders in Pakistan’s history, thus completely changing the rules of the game.
The political crisis triggered by the Panama leaks has helped the security establishment expand its space.
Both possible scenarios — Sharif’s disqualification or his facing trial — could unravel the country’s existing political fabric. It may not only lead to the realignment of political forces, it can also intensify the power struggle within the ruling PML-N. Some broad contours of the political landscape have already emerged. But one has to wait for the Supreme Court ruling to be able to draw a complete picture.
While the gloves are already off as political parties run a sordid campaign against each other, post Panama matters could become dirtier still. Although it has mainly been a war between the PML-N and the PTI, the other political parties have also been sucked into the fray. Surely, all allies have so far stood by the Sharif government, but the situation is likely to change in the event of the prime minister’s disqualification, or even if the case is sent to a trial court.
While the PTI and the PPP appear to be standing together in demanding the prime minister’s resignation, it is very obvious that this tactical alliance may not survive for long. Interestingly, both the PPP and PML-N are bound by the common wish of seeing Imran Khan also being disqualified by the Supreme Court on the basis of a money trail leading to the purchase of his Banigala estate.
Although the cases against Sharif and Imran Khan are different, the two parties would be happy to see the PTI chief removed from the electoral scene. While the PTI presents the biggest challenge to PML-N’s political domination in Punjab, the PPP sees it as an opportunity to regain some lost ground in the country’s biggest and most powerful province. However, there appears a consensus among all political parties against early elections. It will certainly not help, were the PML-N to go to the polls with its leader in the dock.
On the surface, the party still appears to be standing united behind Sharif, but there are reports of some backbenchers raising their voices and showing their dissent as the government faces a crisis of moral and political legitimacy. The biggest jolt to the party came with reports of Chaudhry Nisar, the interior minister, threatening to quit the cabinet. It seems hard to believe that the minister, though temperamental, will break his long association with the PML-N. But any decision to quit the cabinet at this stage would encourage others in senior party positions to speak out as well. It may also intensify the battle for succession within the family. Moreover, the PML-N has the dubious reputation of becoming fragmented under pressure.
Another consequence of the Panamagate scandal is the changing balance of power among various branches of the state that may influence the future of the democratic political process in the country. Undoubtedly, the judiciary has emerged as an arbiter of power with the apex court becoming the main venue of settling political battles.
The role of the top court has further expanded with parliament becoming increasingly ineffective and Sharif’s disregard of the institutional decision-making process. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the political fate of the country’s two most powerful political leaders is now tied to the pending Supreme Court rulings in the respective petitions filed against them by the rival parties.
More significantly, the political crisis triggered by the Panama leaks has helped the military establishment expand its space. Interestingly, the scandal unfolded when civil-military relations hit a low despite the change of army guard. In fact, relations between the Sharif government and the military have remained strained throughout the government’s four years in power. That may also be the reason behind suspicions of military intelligence agencies using the scandal to destabilise the government. The inclusion of members of the ISI and MI on the joint investigation team probing the matter further reinforced this conspiracy theory.
Whatever the Supreme Court ruling may be, there is no likelihood of civil-military relations getting back on track. In fact, a major concern is that the military could regain its position as an arbiter of power as the deepening political crisis creates a power vacuum. However, there seems to be no possibility of direct military intervention or derailment of the political process. The balance of power may tilt more towards the military, but not that drastically.
This game of thrones may prolong the political crisis in the country if the political forces don’t clean up their act.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2017