PML-N’s new clothes and Pakistani politics| Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi

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Nawaz Sharif accepted the judgment of the Supreme Court bench disqualifying him from holding any elected office. However, he advised the PML-N loyalists to reject the judgment and wait for his directions for taking steps to reverse the post-judgment political situation that has blocked his return to the office of prime minister.

Sharif’s advice to his supporters to contest the court ruling at an appropriate time conflicts with his advice to former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani when he faced contempt of court proceedings in the Supreme Court in 2012. At that time Sharif wanted Gilani to quit his office even before the verdict against him was delivered. Once Gilani was convicted and removed from office, Sharif and the PML-N were supportive of the Supreme Court action against the prime minister of that time.

Now, in 2017, when Sharif himself is hit by a judgment of the Supreme Court, it is being described as a conspiracy involving the military and the Supreme Court to oust him. He told his supporters that his removal was a grave injustice done to those who elected him as the prime minister.
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Nawaz Sharif’s four-day car rally from Islamabad to Lahore witnessed the bitter attacks mainly on the Supreme Court and secondarily on the military by him and some of his hardline supporters for ousting him from power. He repeatedly argued how could five non-elected judged remove an elected prime minister and that his removal was the rejection of the elected National Assembly that represented the collective will of the people.

His strident tone in the car rally aimed at achieving three major objectives. First, he wants to reassure his party people that despite the ban he is around, actively pursuing the party affairs. They should not move out of party or look towards an alternate leadership in the party to pursue their political career.

Second, he wants to convey the message to the Supreme Court and the military that they would have to deal with a tough and assertive Sharif who will continue to command politics.

Third, he wants to show his political clout at the popular level to deter the Accountability Court from proceeding with references against him and his family at a fast pace. He would like these references to be put on hold or their proceedings take place at a very slow pace, giving him enough time to consolidate his position in the post-Panama judgment period.

These goals are not likely to be fully achieved because only a section of his party has responded actively to the car rally. He was unable to mobilise new support from outside the party. Even within the PML-N, a section of the leadership was unenthusiastic about the exercise and they were known to have advised him to avoid this rally.

The rally has created internal strains in the PML-N which are likely to increase with the passage of time on the question of how to deal with the superior judiciary and the military? Not all the senior PML-N leaders share Sharif’s strident political style demonstrated during the car rally.

Another type of strain is expected to emerge in the PML-N due to the incipient differences in the Sharif family on the question of succession to the “throne” of power. Whether the office of prime minister stays with the Nawaz Sharif family or it could go to Shahbaz Sharif? The decision of the PML-N to keep Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab in the name of protecting the party interests in the biggest province and putting forward the wife of Nawaz Sharif as a candidate in the Lahore by-election are being watched with much interest by the political observers. Some people are asking the question if she is elected, will she be made the prime minister to enable Nawaz Sharif to manage the “throne” from the background?

In such an uncertain and depressing situation, the only positive development from the point of view of the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif is that the opposition parties continue to be divided and there are little chances of these coming together to oppose the PML-N. The PTI leader, Imran Khan, appears to lack the capacity to work with other political parties on a shared political agenda. The PPP has lost most of its political clout except in the interior Sindh. Bilawal Bhutto is currently critical of both the PTI and the PMLN. However, Zardari and Khursheed Shah give off conflicting signals. At times, they are critical of Nawaz Sharif. At other time, they engage in soft paddling towards him. The Jamaat-e-Islami plays its trumpet all by itself. Dr Tahirul Qadri will have to stay in Pakistan for an extended period if he wants to convert his religious appeal into a credible political asset.

The divided house of the opposition and their internal contradictions give some hope to the PML-N to cope with the current political challenges. However, the PML-N needs to put its house in order and avoid unnecessary confrontation with the superior judiciary and the military. When the PML-N is in power at the federal level and in Punjab, Balochistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, is it advisable to pursue confrontation with the two important state institutions and the major opposition parties for servicing the personal power ambition of its leader?

If the PML-N and the opposition parties cannot overcome their peculiar deficiencies and evolve a long-term and coherent approach to advance their own agendas, the current incoherence in Pakistani politics will persist. No matter which party is in power, the issues of poor governance, socio-economic inequities and ambiguous policies on some critical domestic and foreign policy issues would continue to haunt the political leaders. The judiciary and the military would watch the situation from the sidelines. They will also find it difficult to offer a better solution to the troubled Pakistani politics.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2017.

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