Battle to no end

21 Feb 2018


MANY had written off Nawaz Sharif after he was unceremoniously removed from the office by the country’s highest court last year. He and his family are standing trial on graft charges. He appeared down and out. There were signs of split in the party and within his own family. But six months down the road, the former prime minister has bounced back proving the pundits wrong.

Sharif’s victim narrative, however distorted it may be, seems to be gaining public traction. His frontal assault on the judiciary and jibes at the security establishment seem to be working. His daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz has certainly drawn a populist response with her rabble-rousing speeches. Both father and daughter are on the warpath playing a game of dangerous brinkmanship.

From the public rallies and legal battles, Sharif has taken his fight against the judiciary to parliament as well. The government is now seeking to censure the judges for making what it describes ‘insulting remarks’ against elected politicians. The clash of institutions is getting uglier with Sharif’s unrelenting onslaught against the country’s top judges. It seems a calculated move to bring the judiciary under pressure. The provocation may not bring the judges under pressure but it certainly has made the credibility of the court controversial.

Maryam has become the ruling party’s face of resistance building a new populist culture rarely witnessed in the PML-N where there is no tradition of a woman taking the political centre stage. It also has put her as a front runner in the race for succession within the family and the party, though her confrontationist path makes the party’s old guards a bit uneasy. Her aggression may have helped uplift the morale of Sharif’s supporters. But it has also intensified the collision with other powerful institutions of the state.

There are many hurdles in the way for Nawaz Sharif to cross. His legal battle is far from over.

His party’s unexpected victory in the National Assembly by-election in Lodhran has galvanised Sharif’s supporters and silenced the dissenters in the ranks. Sharif is now fancying a landslide in the coming general elections that may allow his party to change the rules and get him back at the helm for a record fourth time. A weak and fragmented opposition and the advantage of his party still being in control of the federal as well as the Punjab government allow him huge space to manipulate the system.

What brings the biggest relief to PML-N is the perceived slide in its nemesis Imran Khan’s populist appeal. It may purely be a personal matter, but the circumstances and the timing of Imran Khan’s third marriage and the controversy generated by a section of the media has given the PML-N some ammunition to fire at him. While the PTI seems to have lost momentum owing to Sharif’s offensive, the PPP has become almost irrelevant in Punjab, which is the main political battleground. Zardari’s half-hearted move to regain a foothold for the party in the province does not seem to have made any headway.

But there is still a long way to go before the general elections and there are many hurdles in the way for Sharif to cross. His legal battle is far from over. There are three major court decisions that are expected to be announced by next month that could change the political dynamics yet again and intensify the clash of institutions.

The Supreme Court has already completed proceedings on two petitions — one on determining the period of disqualification under Articles 62 and 63 and the other on the changes made by parliament in the electoral law allowing Sharif to continue as president of his party despite his disqualification as prime minister. These two Sharif-specific rulings are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the accountability court is also expected to wind up the graft cases against Sharif and his family by next month. There is little hope of them emerging unscathed. These three decisions will decide not only Sharif’s but also the country’s political course in the run-up to the approaching general elections. Sharif’s possible conviction or his being stripped of his position as PML-N president will bring the clash between the executive and the judiciary to a head. Sharif has already vowed not to accept any court ruling against him.

Sharif’s defiance could create a major political crisis. But can he win this battle for political survival notwithstanding the fact that his political support base remains unaffected? Undoubtedly, the party has rallied around him but can it mobilise the masses against any adverse court ruling?

There were no real public protests when he was removed from the office for perjury and it is not likely to happen in the event of his conviction. Notwithstanding Sharif’s newfound aggressive populism, it will be hard for the party to resort to a mass movement to get the court ruling reversed. But the victim could be used by the party to win votes in the elections. It, however, remains to be seen whether it could be turned into the landslide victory that Sharif wants in the hope of amending the Constitution.

Notwithstanding a favorable dispensation, it will not be easy for the party to achieve a clean sweep just on the basis of its support in Punjab and playing the sympathy card. Although the fissures within the party appear to have waned, they could resurface if Sharif remains defiant. More importantly, the PTI despite the seeming downturn in its political fortunes, remains a formidable opposition. For an incumbent government, it is never easy not only to return to power but also increase its electoral support. Indeed, there are still some months to go before elections are held and it is hard to forecast any outcome at the moment. But it is the expected court ruling in the three Sharif-specific cases that matters at the moment.

Perhaps more worrying is the growing confrontation between the judiciary and the executive that is spinning out of control. If not contained, it could damage the entire political edifice. Indeed, parliament must debate the issue but any move to obstruct the judicial process would be extremely dangerous.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018