Empire strikes back

Empire strikes back
NA-120 was supposed to make or break Nawaz Sharif. Understandably, therefore, his loyalists are crowing. But the facts belie the case.

The PMLN has won. But the smallest ever margin is nothing to write home about. It has won every election since 1985 with a bigger and bigger margin (except in 2013, but even then its margin was higher than today’s). If this is the best it can do in its “most favoured” constituency in all of Pakistan, especially when the “Iqama factor” was supposed to weigh in on its side, then the PMLN has a lot of serious thinking to do. The hope that a thunderous win in NA-120 would bring popular pressure to bear on those institutions of the state that are gunning for Nawaz Sharif has evaporated.

NA-120 was also supposed to launch the political career of Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Although she ran a confident and spirited campaign and has come of age, the uninspiring win has led people to ask whether Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, who has been nurturing the PMLN party apparatus in the Punjab for long, would have done a better job in pulling the votes out for a resounding victory. Like his father, Hamza is so estranged from the Nawaz camp that he decided to leave the country before the election instead of lending a helping hand at a critical moment for the party. Indeed, if both father and son had run the campaign with the full weight of the provincial party behind them, instead of with a clutch of federal loyalists like Maryam did, they might have delivered greater success. At the very least, they might have ensured that significant numbers of PMLN voters were not stranded at the finishing line for lack of time.

The result of NA-120 has also buried the debate about an early or late election. A big win would have stressed the importance of the “Iqama factor” and how to exploit it going forward. Now there is no choice but to hunker down for a long haul and face the full wrath of the Supreme Court via NAB without any umbrella of popular sympathy. The split in the Sharif family is also likely to become both visible and more stressful for the PMLN. This will encourage desertions when the going gets rougher.

As if on cue, the SC has summarily dismissed the various review petitions filed by the Sharifs even though both facts and jurisprudence in the Iqama judgment were highly disputable. Arrest warrants have been issued for Ishaq Dar by an accountability court, suggesting that, if the Sharifs were also to absent themselves from the reference against them, much the same treatment would be meted out to them. Even Shehbaz Sharif is likely to be tarred when the Hudaybia case is probed again with a SC judge directing action. Indeed, NAB is likely to become more hostile when the current chairman’s term ends in a few months. With both the PPP and PMLN at odds, the chances of quickly finding a consensus candidate who also meets with the approval of the PTI are slim. In such circumstances, the SC may either step in to direct NAB on a day to day basis or appoint an interim chairman of its liking until all parties meet their constitutional obligations to appoint one with consensus. In either case, the Sharifs will feel the rising heat palpably. Already there are demands by the PTI and its media supporters to appoint SC nominees to state institutions like NAB, State Bank of Pakistan, SECP, FIA, FBR, and IB in order to cleanse them of political bias in favour of the ruling party.

In an interview shortly before the NA-120 election, Maryam Nawaz said that her father would return from London to fight the charges even though he might face arrest. Now that the Sharifs have announced they will not present themselves in court, because they don’t expect justice from it, the wags are saying that Nawaz Sharif may not return home in a hurry. Indeed, the word is out that some sort of “deal” is being proposed by the Establishment that orchestrated this drama in the first place – “stay away, don’t mess with us, let us run the country indirectly, and we’ll not screw you”. In this scheme of things, there is no scope for any strong political party in office because the record shows that power goes to the head of politicians and provokes them to challenge the Establishment, which is “heretical” in current parlance.

In the present circumstances, the Establishment is more powerful than it has ever been under a civilian dispensation. It is the Empire now. Instead of having to cope with a SC under a maverick like Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry who was prone to ticking it off periodically, the Establishment has now joined forces with Mr Chaudhry’s successors to bring its own errant offspring like Nawaz Sharif into line.

Pakistan’s tragedy is unending. Neither the Empire nor its offspring have learnt anything from history.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.