Nawaz’s forced exit redraws power matrix

Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was not an unforeseen event. The situation since last year had been leading towards a grand finale and his forced exit from politics. But this was not the first time a serious effort had been mounted by the opposition leader Imran Khan to knock out his primary foe. Most of 2014 was spent building a narrative that Sharif and his party lacked legitimacy due to alleged election rigging in 2013. Later, a judicial commission could not find much substance in these charges and the rigging mantra died its natural death. The Panama Leaks last year created a new window of opportunity and enabled almost all the adversaries of Sharif converge around the idea of a grand putsch. The probability of ousting Sharif was far higher than before.

So it happened. Sharif has resigned. He may not hold a formal party office either as the law does not allow that. This is a bigger challenge than it seems as the control over a factionalised party will be a struggle, especially when Sharif and his family members will be facing relatively speedy trials (to be concluded in 6 months) as decreed by the Supreme Court.

While the PMLN has been quick to appoint Shehbaz Sharif as the successor, this is going to be one bumpy ride until 2018 elections with a number of unknowns which will not only impact the fate of Sharif dynasty but the political climate, economy and the future of democracy itself.

Sharif was ousted in 1993 (twice) and 1999 by the all-powerful military. This time the situation is different, as the military has had no overt role in the disqualification. Conspiracy theories aside, the Panama case has been the handiwork by an effective campaign led by Imran Khan, the schadenfreude-driven PPP and sections of the media that resulted in a broader acceptability of an elected PM being fired – yet again. In fact, the events have been framed as if accountability of unexplained wealth has been achieved. In reality, Sharif’s disqualification is based on an omission and the allegations in the Panama investigation are still pending trial with an uncertain outcome. But this is the power of the media and the efficacious tactic of throwing out an adversary who was likely to win the next election given the weak electoral prospects of opposition parties.

Sharif’s disqualification has boosted Imran Khan’s prospects like never before. For one, Khan stands vindicated over his stance on the corruption of Sharifs and his support base has been re-mobilised 

In the months to come with bitter political squabbling, a plethora of court cases against the Sharif family as well as his rival Imran Khan and the PMLN hold over power slipping away, the powerfulmilitary establishment is likely to steer the course of events. The elephant in the room, missing in the public discourse, therefore will lead the way. The military will avoid direct rule given its engagement in internal security as well as two hostile neighbours, a superpower breathing down its proverbial neck to deliver on its goals in Afghanistan; and another emerging power securing its investments in the region.

In the years to come, the power balance will be tilted towards the unelected institutions of the state. Not that the real power had actually shifted to the civilians but the decade-long democratic transition had distributed power to various centres. As evidenced during the past few months, the judiciary, the military and the media displayed and asserted their powers without hesitation. Since the 2014 rescue of Sharif, the Parliament has been the weakest of power-centres. And the parliamentarians, especially those from the PMLN, should take some blame for that by not agreeing on the rules of game. Politicians have been seeking interventions from first the military and in the recent case from the judiciary. Along side, they have also fueled the politicisation and factionalisation of the media.

The scales have also tilted in favour of Imran Khan. From a situation where his win in the 2018 elections was a remote possibility — Sharif’s disqualification has boosted his prospects like never before. For one, Khan stands vindicated over his stance on the corruption of Sharifs and his support base has been re-mobilised after the unsuccessful street protests in 2014 and 2016. Second, the fracturing of PPP in the Punjab has sent many more ‘electables’ his way. Third, now that the PMLN future is uncertain, he is likely to receive more winning horses especially in the Punjab that decides who rules Islamabad.

The best-case scenario will be that Shehbaz Sharif leads the government into the next election without major hurdles. A public sympathy wave allows the Sharifs to retain their political base, the party forms the next government and brings in requisite legal changes in its favour. But this is an unlikely scenario as history tells us when the ‘unelected’ throw out the elected, it is not to get them re-elected.

The second scenario, perhaps more palatable to the powers-that-be, is to let the Sharifs remain entangled in legal battles and with more signs of their not returning, drive away a sizeable chunk of electables towards Imran Khan and the King’s party, that is the PML-Q. Finally, the prospect of an Imran Khan-only win remains alive in the imagination of his fiery supporters. And if there are mass defections due to clear signals from the establishment, this may well become true.

The current political engineering, as before, is driven by short-term objectives and is largely aimed at the post-2018 civilian order that remains pliant and also satisfies the imperatives of‘clean’politicians demanded by Pakistan’s urban middle-classes. But short-term measures have long shadows. The understated but ever present prospect of a national government that will clean up the country cannot be ruled out. This is why the ongoing seasons of disqualifications will be worth watching. It is unclear how in the absence of strong institutions, and political instability the much-touted accountability agenda will proceed.

Pakistan’s democratic transition has received a systemic shock and it will take some time and a formidable civilian consensus – like the defunct Charter of Democracy – to regain the losses. The alarming sign is that no one really cares about it.


Published in Daily Times, July 30, 2017: Nawaz’s forced exit redraws power matrix

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