A long, hot summer

Published April 29, 2017

LIKE vultures circling an injured beast, Nawaz Sharif’s opponents are closing in on him as he limps away from the Supreme Court.

While the verdict did not inflict a mortal blow, it has left deep wounds on Pakistan’s self-proclaimed tiger. But Nawaz Sharif has many resources at his disposal, and will do his best to live to fight another day.

For one, he can count on his principal foes, Imran Khan and Asif Zardari, to turn on each other, as they have done recently. Their refusal to join forces is the PML-N leader’s biggest advantage. By dint of their personal animus, they may yet let Sharif off the hook.

The PM will do his best to live to fight another day.

Another factor in his favour is the lack of enthusiasm for yet more political agitation and violence committed in the name of accountability. In all probability, the establishment has conveyed this to Imran Khan when he met the army chief recently. And the PPP doesn’t have the stomach or the foot soldiers to take to the streets on Zardari’s call.

Thirdly, the economy is doing reasonably well, with the promise of CPEC’s billions prompting many not to rock the boat. And while power shortages threaten to make this a long, hot summer, the government will probably divert enough electricity from industrial to domestic users to mollify the urban citizenry that makes and breaks governments.

While Asif Zardari is making aggressive speeches in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, his fire is directed towards both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. But much of his anti-government salvos focus on the Sharif family’s corruption, an area he would be well advised to stay clear of, given his own record.

Imran Khan’s recent revelation that he had been offered Rs10bn by the Sharif camp to not pursue the Panama leaks rings hollow as he has given no evidence whatsoever to back his charge. But this is in line with all the other wild, unfounded accusations he has made over his political career.

So given the quality of this opposition, does Sharif have a good chance of hanging on until the elections next year? The PPP poses little threat to his power base in Punjab: in this key battleground, the danger comes from Imran Khan and his PTI where his educated, youthful supporters go head to head with Sharif’s vote bank of traders and conservative city dwellers.

With a rising middle class and an expanding urban demography, Nawaz Sharif has a substantial support base: according to a recent Gallup poll, he still has the plurality of voters behind him, even after the Panama leaks revelations. But one bad monsoon and high food prices could tilt the balance.

Another wild card is the ongoing Panama leaks inquiry. A negative report from the joint investigation team (JIT), or the perception of non-cooperation from the Sharif family, could well be a game changer. But increasingly, the likelihood of this team being able to deliver on the Supreme Court’s timetable is being questioned.

Already, there are reports of senior members of the civilian bodies nominated by the judges to the JIT applying for long leave to escape the onus of serving in a case that could spell doom for their careers. Imagine being caught in a crossfire between the court, the Sharifs and Imran Khan. Angering any of them could amount to professional suicide.

So if a clean chit is a long time in coming, will the intervening period rub further salt into Sharif’s wounds? Or will people get bored of the whole thing and move on to the next crisis? And Lord knows there’s no shortage of them in Pakistan.

One problem with the verdict is that Nawaz Sharif has already been declared guilty by Imran Khan and his cohorts. But by the same token, the majority decision is hailed by PML-N supporters as a victory for their leader. However, the fortnightly reports demanded by the court promise to keep the issue alive through the half-digested information they will no doubt contain.

Despite this unrelenting focus on corruption, ask most voters what their priorities are, and chances are that the following will figure high on the list: employment, inflation, security, power outages, a lack of clean water and so on. A concern about corruption will feature if a citizen has some work in a government department, and has to pay off a babu or a cop. The Sharif family’s free and easy ways with public funds are far from being a factor in voting preference.

This is why this drama is likely to be confined to TV chat shows and the drawing rooms of the chattering classes. Flats bought in London over two decades ago, and held by firms registered in Panama, is too remote to resonate with people other than those with a political agenda.

So maybe the tiger will live to fight another day, and the vultures will have to wait.


Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2017



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