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Nawaz Sharif’s options

Updated October 25, 2017


IN this political game of Chinese chequers, ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems to have been left with very few choices. He is returning home extremely beleaguered. Not only has he, and his family members, been indicted by an accountability court on a litany of corruption charges, he is also facing a brewing revolt in the party ranks with his brother leading the pack.

With the noose tightening around him, Nawaz Sharif may be reviewing his political strategy. The tenor of his loyalists against the ‘establishment’ has distinctly mellowed, though they are still questioning the fairness of the trial. Meanwhile, the younger Sharif has thrown caution to the wind and is getting more assertive. The rumbling among party dissidents is becoming louder.

It is all very ominous. With court proceedings on the fast track and with little hope of him and his family remaining unscathed, the options for Sharif are running out. Yet all is not lost for the former prime minister who returned stronger each time he was ousted previously. He may be down but is not completely out; he is still the most powerful political leader in the country at the moment. So what are the choices for the ousted leader facing further humiliation in the accountability court?

Strife within the party is proving more ominous for the embattled former prime minister.

It is certainly a different situation for Sharif than what he had faced when he was ousted from power twice in the past. Both times he was removed with the military intervening directly. This time, the action has been more subtle yet extremely devastating. The ouster came through a legal process with the military staying in the shadows.

However, with the trial proceeding, the khaki shadows have gotten larger. The evidence against the Sharifs is strong enough to convict them hence no need for the generals to come out of the shadows yet and wind up the game. Sharif knew it too so he threw down the gauntlet hoping to stall the accountability court from indicting him.

His show of aggression may have worked initially to mobilise his supporters and win public sympathy. The ambiguous court judgement disqualifying him came in handy. He, however, miscalculated the power of the judiciary boosted by the backing of the security establishment. His indictment last week dealt a serious blow to the morale of his supporters. His desperate last-moment attempt to get the indictment delayed failed. He thought he could sit out the trial, but it would not happen.

The move by some elements to instal Shahbaz Sharif as party head has certainly weakened Nawaz Sharif’s position. The message has been loud and clear: winning the coming elections is more important than taking the risk of the entire system being wound up which seems inevitable in the event of a confrontation with the security establishment and judiciary. The division between the confrontationists and those advocating moderation and reconciliation is becoming sharper. This internal strife is proving more ominous for the embattled former prime minister and has narrowed his options.

Sharif, however, still has some cards to play. Even those critical of his taking the path of confrontation need him to win votes in the coming elections. While Shahbaz could bring stability to the party and help maintain its unity, it is Nawaz Sharif who is the vote puller. The former prime minister can play this card to keep his hold over the party, but with the establishment determined to keep him out it would be hard for him to do so for long.

It is evident that the security establishment would not have any problem working with the younger Sharif and the current federal government. There are already rumours of some kind of a deal being negotiated between them. The recent statements made by the Punjab chief minister and his son Hamza Sharif rejecting the policy of confrontation gives credence to these speculations.

But the big question is whether Nawaz Sharif will accept any deal that keeps him out of politics. Even if he is willing to compromise, there is no surety that it would save him and his children from being convicted by the accountability court. There is a strong feeling among some of Sharif’s close aides that matters are beyond repair. Yet there is nothing improbable in the political power game.

Some others may still believe that the only option left to Nawaz Sharif is to continue with his hard-line position and build public pressure on the judiciary. Despite his substantive mass support base, it is improbable his party can bring out the public on the streets and sustain this over a long period. It is extremely difficult for a divided party that does not have a history of resistance to take on the security establishment.

Meanwhile, the PML-N stands isolated with no political party willing to support it on the issue. The risk of the entire system being wrapped up has also been a factor that has caused the others not to stand with Sharif in challenging the security establishment. In fact, most of them have publicly been demanding his prosecution. There is also a paradox of the party being the government and playing opposition at the same time.

Indeed, it is a huge political mess that is hard for anyone to clear up. Seldom has the country witnessed such a fragmented political spectrum. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the military has once again assumed the role of sole arbiter of political power. It will have serious repercussions for the fledgling democratic process. The recent statement by the army chief expressing the military’s concern over the state of the economy shows how deeply the security institution has gone into state affairs without formally taking over.

While the ouster of Nawaz Sharif has shaken the system, the outcome of his trial will change the political dynamic completely. Much will also depend on how Sharif deals with the challenges within his party and outside. The party is not yet over.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2017