Turbulence ahead, fasten your seatbelts

Murtaza Solangi takes a macro view of the national political landscape

Turbulence ahead, fasten your seatbelts
The panic is palpable in the Nawaz camp after the April 20 verdict from the Supreme Court in which three out of five judges backed the prime minister but said an investigation had to be held into offshore money following leak of financial documents informally called the Panama papers. The Nawaz camp believes that efforts are afoot to decapitate the party—to either force it into an early election or go to the polls sans Nawaz and even possibly sans Maryam. In the first case scenario, they fear that they may be robbed of the chance to finish projects that show off their performance. In the second case, they are skittish about going to the polls without their star lineup. Both situations appear grim for Nawaz and Maryam, the heir apparent, so carefully groomed over the last four years.

Imran Khan has a one-point agenda: oust Nawaz. He would dethrone the Sharifs by political engineering led by the judiciary or the other umpire. Elections minus Nawaz and Maryam or with a technocratic set-up sound just fine to him. His second tactic is to constantly bleed the Sharifs, especially in the Punjab, to deprive them of a clear majority in the next National Assembly. While he is focused on Takht-e-Punjab to crown himself, the prize is PM House, except he doesn’t know that he is loathed in the establishment’s echelons for his inflexible attitude and arrogance. He can only be trusted to harm others. He can’t be trusted to rule the country. He may or may not know that a grand alliance against him would be launched in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the one-point agenda of preventing him from forming the future government. Given history, Pervez Khattak wouldn’t mind rocking Imran’s boat.
Imran Khan has a one-point agenda. Oust Nawaz. Asif Zardari seems to have undergone a major change of heart vis-à-vis the security establishment after his outburst and self exile. We are a heartbeat away from the next elections

After Asif Zardari’s June 16, 2015 outburst, in which he challenged the then military leadership under Raheel Sharif, the Pakistan Peoples Party chief seems to have undergone a major change of heart for the security establishment. A stint of self exile in the UAE and UK seems to have rendered him more pliant to Pindi than he has ever been. Even though some of his proverbial limbs were chopped off, one by one, he turned his guns from Pindi and trained them on Islamabad, pressuring Nawaz to bail him out. But Nawaz, who was already weakened by the Dharna brigade, couldn’t offer any help. This pushed the former president towards toeing the establishment’s line, an outlook which continues to date. But the casualty of adopting this policy has been nothing but the political career of his only son, the son who did not rise. This politics has almost sealed Bilawal’s fate.

Now Asif Zardari is smelling the scent of a Pindi that would love a hung parliament leading to a weak coalition government that could be squeezed so that the Kayani model of backseat driving prevails. He is almost volunteering for the task. This is why he has been on a mission to rope in electables for his party so they can get enough seats to emerge as the third group to negotiate as a coalition partner with the Sharifs or Imran, whoever comes out on top, and maintain Sindh. To his misfortune, however, he is losing electables both in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa faster than you can say the name of the province. What he doesn’t realize is that the landed aristocracy and big business that now dominate the party both in and outside Sindh is only the traditional Q League material that always seeks spiritual guidance from the deep state and would ditch him as fast as you can say KP. The deep state is fed up with the Sindh government’s histrionics over the extension of powers for the Rangers every three months. It would very much love to tackle the PPP government down so that stopped happening.

With all these games being played out, the court is caught in the crossfire. All forces are trying to pull the court in their direction while it is trying to assert its independence while simultaneously emerging from the shadows of an Iftikhar Chaudhry era of judicial activism. So for every one step taken towards judicial restraint, we see two steps taken back to judicial activism. There are visible signs of some elements pushing for a judicial coup against the Sharifs. Whether they succeed or not depends on variables thrown in by the interplay of the powerful forces of the state and the political spectrum.
Besides alienating itself from its would-be partners, the Nawaz government has not been able to make any progress on electoral reforms and the new accountability law

This is not the first attempt to dethrone or weaken the Sharifs. Dharnas and the judicial commission on rigging were just two of many. But this is not 2014. At that point all opposition parties, except the finger-wagging Imran, sided with the Sharifs. Now almost all of them, including the PPP, are in the opposite camp. The second most important factor is timing. We are a heartbeat away from the next general elections as well as those to the upper chamber, the Senate, which comes in March. The demands of the upcoming polls turn friends into foes. That is the nature of the beast called power politics.

The trouble is that the Sharifs do not seem to have learnt much from the Dharna debacle. They could have strengthened themselves as well as the democratic camp by taking the path of inclusive pluralism. Instead, though, as soon as they came out of the danger zone, they were back to turning their old tricks. Parliament, which had saved them, fell to the wayside. Cronyism reared its ugly head. They did not bother to bear up political partners from difficult times.

DAWN leaks, its aftermath and they way it was handled during Raheel further weakened the Sharifs. Now they are vulnerable. And their detractors have pulled out the knives.

Besides alienating itself from its would-be partners, the Nawaz government has not been able to make any progress on electoral reforms and the new accountability law. The federal Right to Information law was delayed for the last four years only to be replaced by a toothless version. As if this were not enough, when the bloggers were picked up in January this year, the government was clueless. It didn’t do its job. In the post-DAWN leaks scenario, the FIA under Chaudhry Nisar, who doesn’t seem to be answerable to the prime minister, went to town on social media activists from different parties, the PML-N included. The government behaved as if it were paralyzed. All this has alienated the Sharifs from the shield of civil society, the intelligentsia and the media. They have used that armour.

What lies ahead is a mammoth challenge that cannot be met by the old style of family-style governance. Acting without thinking is not an option. Something has to give. The future of a stable democratic order as well as that of the Sharifs hangs in the balance.

If the Sharifs had reached out to the PPP and some other parties, conceded on a few fronts, they could have created some space for themselves. That road runs through a stronger parliament, good legislation on electoral reforms and a better accountability law to expand its base and establish democratic credentials. These moves may cause some heartburn in the Nawaz camp but anything else will just lead to isolation and decapitation.

It is difficult to predict how long the legal mess affecting the Sharifs will continue. It may or may not last till the Senate elections next March. They would like to at least pull through till then. If that happens, they can make it all the way to June with or without Nawaz Sharif in the worst case scenario of his disqualification.

Given the current scenario, one can safely say that Punjab will still stand for the Sharifs and Imran Khan will not move any closer from Banigala to Prime Minister House, even if Nawaz Sharif is shown the door by the apex court.

The writer is a broadcast journalist based in Islamabad. He tweets as @murtazasolangi

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad