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The empire strikes back

Updated January 17, 2018


JUST as the situation seemed to be settling down a bit, the country was caught in another whirlpool of political uncertainty. The game is on and it is getting murkier. The political re-engineering in Balochistan has gone rather smoothly. Political loyalty has never been a virtue in this troubled province, yet it needed a masterstroke to have a minority party installed in government by getting disparate groups to come together.

Remarkable machinations saw the majority party dissolved into nothingness overnight, and a non-political entity — who was elected to the Balochistan Assembly with less than 600 votes in the 2013 general elections — installed at the helm. It has indeed been an amazing turn of fortunes, even in a country where shifting political alignments have long been a norm.

There is no denying that the members of the ruling coalition may have their own reasons for discontent but it certainly needed a facilitator to ignite the rebellion and make sure that it succeeded. It is not very hard to guess who could be the conductor of this surgical strike that has changed the political dynamics in the country just two months before the midterm Senate elections. It has also raised questions about the coming general elections being held according to schedule.

The empire has struck back bringing down a staunch Nawaz Sharif loyalist as the former prime minister ups the ante by intensifying confrontation with the apex court and the security establishment. His tenor has become even more strident defying all predictions of him having been reined in by his erstwhile hosts in the holy land. Sharif is not backing down and the security establishment will not let him come back at any cost. The confrontation has threatened to destroy the entire political edifice of democracy.

This is a no-holds-barred confrontation that may spin completely out of control. The Balochistan episode has demonstrated the power of the deep state and its apparent ability to manipulate the system from within and without completely subverting it. But it may not always work.

There is an opportunity for unelected elements to further weaken Nawaz Sharif’s position.

Now the battleground has shifted to Lahore, the Sharif citadel of power, where Tahirul Qadri is leading the charge and Sharif’s two bitterest political rivals are joining hands against him. The 2014 Model Town carnage has long been an Achilles heel of the PML-N government in Punjab, but making public on court orders Justice Najafi’s inquiry committee report has given impetus to the demand for the removal of the Punjab chief minister.

Shahbaz Sharif’s position has become more beleaguered with widespread anti-government protests in the aftermath of the Zainab murder case in Kasur. Meanwhile, the newly emerged powerful Barelvi extremist groups have also stepped up pressure on the government. The controversy has triggered an internal revolt in the PML-N led by an influential cleric.

It is apparent that the younger Sharif too is in the eye of the storm. It is certainly a well-calculated move by the opposition parties to target the man who is the PML-N nominee for office of prime minister in the coming elections. Having distanced himself from his older brother’s policy of confrontation, Shahbaz Sharif had made himself acceptable to the security establishment. He was also seen as a leader who could keep the party united. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruling against the NAB petition to reopen the Hudaibya money-laundering case gave him huge relief. Both Shahbaz Sharif and Hamza Sharif were nominated in the case.

But the latest wave of protests in the province has brought him under tremendous pressure. That also raises questions about the party maintaining its unity as Nawaz Sharif’s confrontation with the establishment comes to a head. With his relentless attacks, he has strengthened what appears to be an unintended nexus between the top judiciary and the security establishment.

There may not be a direct connection between the Balochistan episode and the Qadri-led opposition’s anti-government campaign, but it does provide an opportunity for the unelected elements to further weaken Sharif’s position. It may not be an orchestrated move yet it has the potential to paralyse the Punjab government, widening the cracks in the party. Certainly, it could not lead to the Balochistan-like internal revolt bringing down the Shahbaz administration. But it could deal a serious political blow to the party close to the general elections.

Although the PPP and the PTI are at loggerheads and there is no possibility of them entering into any formal alliance, both find it politically expedient to join Tahirul Qadri’s sit-in. Their main objective is to keep up the pressure on the Punjab government. For the PPP, it could provide an opportunity to infuse some life into the party in the province where it has lost ground. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the PTI can gain from the agitation. Qadri is just an instrument in the whole episode.

With all the opposition parties ganging up against him and the possibility of a brewing discontent within the PML-N turning into a full-scale rebellion, the ousted leader finds himself pushed to the wall. His possible conviction by the accountability court on graft charges in the next few months may seal his political fate. That leaves him with few options other than going down fighting. Many believe that he is fighting a losing battle.

It is, however, not such a straightforward situation. While Sharif is on a warpath taking on the two most dominant institutions of the state, his party still rules both at the centre and the most powerful province of Punjab. Despite being disqualified, he still heads the ruling party and continues to guide the federal government.

A major crisis is waiting to happen. How would the state institutions, including the federal government, respond in the event of the accountability court convicting Sharif and his children? A highly explosive situation is developing on the eve of the general elections. It is hard to see how the government, the opposition parties and the security establishment can deal with this imminent crisis and save the political system. It is an extremely uncertain situation.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2018

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