Today, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif will begin a journey from Islamabad to Lahore that could in some way determine the trajectory of politics in the country in the short term and possibly beyond.

The stakes are high for a number of actors. For Mr Sharif, personal validation awaits as he seeks to prove that the Supreme Court judgement notwithstanding, he remains personally popular with the PML-N base. The GT Road is the core of the Sharif support base and a large turnout along the route will likely be personally satisfying for Mr Sharif and politically advantageous.

For the PML-N, the goal will be to whip up political support for the party ahead of the by-election in NA-120, where a dominant performance by the party may help quell rumours about dissent in the ranks. The PML-N has yet to announce its candidate for the seat Mr Sharif has been forced to relinquish and such uncertainty may sustain rumours and speculation.

For the political rivals of the Sharifs and the PML-N, the GT Road spectacle will be a moment to heap further pressure on the beleaguered Sharif family. With the Supreme Court having declared him ineligible for elected office and the ECP now seeking the removal of the former prime minister as official head of the PML-N, Mr Sharif’s rivals have already denounced the Islamabad-Lahore journey as anti-democratic and against the spirit of the law.

In the zero-sum game of electoral politics — consolidation in support for one side is the denial of gains to the other — the political opposition has little choice but to oppose the GT Road show. Where the political opposition does have a choice, and hopefully will choose correctly, is in the tactics it uses to try and prevent the PML-N from gaining a political advantage.

With potential spoilers having arrived and some of the PML-N’s most determined opponents seemingly in a fighting mood, the spectre of violence has returned to Pakistani politics. Whatever the stakes, sensible politics must prevail and violence of any kind rejected. All sides have vowed that their main priority is the continuation of the democratic process; their words and actions must reflect that commitment.

The key to maintaining peace and not allowing politics to descend into violence may be the Punjab government and the police force in the province. The first priority must be to keep the participants in rallies — of all groups and parties — safe, especially from the ever-present threat of militant attacks. After that, fair rules must apply to who can assemble where and the police hierarchy in the province must coordinate with all sides.

The Punjab government is not known for its neutrality in the execution of its responsibilities to the public, but misguided partiality could trigger unpredictable consequences. All sides must respect the law.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2017

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