The sudden end of a potentially bloody ‘lockdown’ of Islamabad on Tuesday and the event’s conversion to a ‘thanksgiving’ has left a range of questions unanswered.
As scores of protesters, who had gathered around Imran Khan’s Banigala home finally stepped back from a likely confrontation with the paramilitary and police troops, the most widely asked question was just one — what next?
Camps cheering on Imran Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, on Tuesday night, were eagerly predicting victory, adding confusion to an already boggled state of Pakistan’s politics.
For Imran Khan, who had promised to defy the odds irrespective of the outcome just hours before the Supreme Court announced the establishment of a judicial commission to probe the Panama leaks, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has entered an irrevocable end to his three-year regime.
But Sharif’s backers also claimed victory with one minister claiming that the prime minister “remains invincible”. He told this writer: “None of the Panama accounts are under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s name. Why should he be targeted even if the wealth of his children in foreign accounts is proven?”
Among the mainstream cadres of ‘jiyalas’ (loyalists) representing both parties, there is a cloud of disappointment. For the rank and file of the PML-N, since a crackdown targeting PTI’s loyalists began on Friday, Wednesday’s coming protest was likely to expose the erosion of Imran Khan’s ability to paralyse Islamabad. In contrast, PTI’s activists who had been converging upon Islamabad in recent days, the coming protest was a valuable opportunity to flex their muscles more forcefully than their last protest in 2014.
The end to the all-too-visible deadlock between the two camps came when the Supreme Court on Tuesday jumped into the fray, reversing its earlier stance against admitting the Panama leaks for hearing. Although the honourable judges do not speak out in public, the court’s entry in the realm may have been driven by the desire to block a potentially major clash between two of the most charged-up parties in Pakistani politics.
Still, for Islamabad’s diplomatic community whose members in recent days have closely watched the build-up, Tuesday’s dramatic developments have left behind a pertinent question — exactly where the wind will blow in the coming days?
Though the Sharifs’ governments in Islamabad and in the Punjab have sought to be seen getting tough with the PTI and staying well in-charge, some question their ability to remain firmly in place. “The crackdown [against PTI leaders and activists] only showed that the government was nervous, perhaps even unsure of its future,” said a senior western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to this writer. “Certainly there was overkill,” he added.
While the PTI instantly claimed success on Tuesday, analysts noted that celebrating the step back from a coming political collision may have been all too premature. As long as Nawaz Sharif remains the prime minister, backed by his younger sibling Shahbaz Sharif as the chief minister in the populous Punjab province, the PML-N’s authority as the main ruling party will remain in place.
“The obvious risk to Imran Khan is that Nawaz Sharif’s monopoly over power in the Punjab remains in place even though a judicial commission has been formed,” said Lahore-based prominent political analyst Dr Hasan Askari RIzvi. “If he [Nawaz Sharif] doesn’t remain the prime minister, his power might begin to erode.”
And yet, Imran Khan’s close confidantes were convinced that the proceedings of the just announced judicial commission will be put on a fast track by the Supreme Court where top judges would have to recognise the historical significance of the responsibility they have now undertaken.
For Imran Khan, optimism over eventually forcing out the prime minister stems from two equally important matters.
First, a detailed investigation based on the findings of the globally publicised Panama leaks will have to look in to the paper trail between the considerable wealth of Sharif’s three children and its source. Theoretically, Pakistan’s law allows the country’s citizens to keep assets overseas but only as long as they have been declared for tax purposes. Though tax evasion across Pakistan is rampant, the exposure of the prime minister’s children to charges of money laundering will likely undermine his position too.
Second, the timing of the purchase of the UK-based properties will be important as the commission’s work progresses. Any evidence of its purchase in the name of the Sharif children while they were underage will immediately place the onus of responsibility on Nawaz Sharif to satisfy the court.
Though Pakistan’s history has shown few examples of the high and mighty being taken to task for financial crimes, one PTI leader on Tuesday night remained optimistic. “Al Capone [the famous Chicago gangster] was eventually caught on charges of tax evasion, not murder,” he told this writer. “The hype surrounding the Panama leaks has been so intense that Pakistan may be now ready to break fresh ground,” he concluded.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2016