THE last nine months have been tough on the PML-N. Till recently, it seemed unbeatable in 2018. The 3E (economic, energy and extremism) issues it inherited were steadily being tackled. The economic narrative about CPEC being a game-changer was seductive even if too rosy.
But today, it is unclear if it will even complete its current term and survive beyond. Seen from a moral lens alone, the PML-N rightly looks like the epitome of evil-corruption, dynastic politics, internal autocracy — and its troubles seem natural and well-deserved. But moral lenses alone paint a partial picture.
One must supplement them with political economy lenses. Viewing so, one is struck by a puzzle. The PML-N may be the epitome of evil but compared with other parties in Saarc, it is not exceptionally so. Why then is it alone in meeting this fate? This fact provokes the Sherlock Holmes in me to check if the imminent death by natural cause medical diagnosis uses PML-N’s natural ills to hide a cunning murder attempt via external blows.
The party alone shows interest in pursuing civilian democracy.
Panama was the first body blow it took. Sharifs have likely amassed huge wealth via sleaze and the NAB cases may convict them fairly but only after many months. But Panama would not have had a devastating impact on the PML-N sans the instant and unexpected decapitation that Nawaz’s de-seating caused. But unlike the seeming solidity of the 10 volumes of JIT proof against the Sharifs for NAB cases, the de-seating verdict came across as iffy and irresponsible. The view that the six years of unpaid salary was a declarable receivable asset negates accounting rules. Thus, the solid proof in Panama is yet to cause legal harm. But the huge legal blow Panama has already dealt it was via a very controversial verdict. These nuances were lost in the moral fury provoked around Panama.
The second blow came from the fast unravelling of the PML-N’s overly rosy economic narrative. The 2014 economic recovery was shaky given the heavy reliance on loans and indirect taxes and the lack of exports recovery. Astute economists had predicted even in 2014 the next foreign reserves crisis for 2017. Still, the narrative common in media about the utter economic doom caused by the PML-N too is overly bleak, especially the comparison with the USSR’s collapse. So the damage to the PML-N’s image on this issue exceeds reality.
The final blow was dealt by Rizvi’s sit-in. Most analysts blame the PML-N for touching the Khatm-i-Nabuwat declaration in the electoral law. The changes were soon reversed. However, many believe that the party should have foreseen the reaction which was far greater than expected, leading some to ask if it was instigated.
Then there was the abject surrender, again mostly pinned on the PML-N. While it must shoulder much blame for poor planning and execution, by Nov 25th, it did finally develop a sensible strategy, ie, to launch an operation sans heavy force. The light tools failed the first time. This did not mean giving up but trying again. But then came the odd tweet and pressure to engage in one-sided talks from Pindi, which actually was the main cause for the abject surrender to extremists.
Reviewing this rapid series of eternal blows, Sherlock Holmes tells me that while the PML-N suffers from huge internal ills, its current anaemic status is not due to them but the external blows. Still, being the stickler that he is for proof, he is unable to conclude if their occurrence in a short period was a coincidence or designed. If there is more crippling agitation soon, my suspicions about them being designed may increase much.
The PML-N is a conservative party and as a liberal voter, I have no interest in it. But as a political analyst aware of how tough it may be for Pakistan to replace even such a weak party, I have an interest in seeing it survive, also since it alone shows interest in pursuing civilian supremacy.
The standard advice to the PML-N from moral lenses would be to strengthen internal democracy, parliament and rule of law. But this advice at least in the short term is laughably naïve seen from political economy lenses. Pakistani society cannot produce such parties for decades, like many other developing states. The best short-term advice one can give is to remove internal fractures around succession.
This will require Nawaz Sharif to take a back seat in favour of his brother Shahbaz Sharif, at least as a tactical retreat until polls. Otherwise, the risks to party survival will remain very high.
The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2017