THE Senate chairman’s election was an indicator of how the die is being cast against the ruling party. The defeat of the PML-N candidate may not have come as a surprise but the large margin was certainly striking. The outcome was craftily sewn up with bitter political rivals PPP and PTI coalescing into an unholy alliance.
It was not just about the control of the upper house of parliament; the main intent was to block any possibility of political revival of an embattled Nawaz Sharif. Surely a victory would have given a massive moral, political boost to the disgraced leader, yet the setback is not likely to blunt his defiance.
Instead, the battle for the Senate has intensified the clash between the PML-N and the security establishment that has been blamed for producing a ‘favourable result’. There is no denying that the convergence of interests had essentially brought disparate political groups together, yet the role of the pervasive deep state in the matter cannot be underestimated. What has been happening is not that incomprehensible.
From the political re-engineering in Balochistan to the emergence of an independent group of newly elected senators from the province, the chain of events over the past few months does not appear to have been coincidental. Across the opposition, consensus on a relatively unknown politician for one of the nation’s highest elected office too was not unplanned though the move was wrapped in the fancy slogan of remedying Baloch alienation.
The security establishment and the courts have asserted themselves to distort the balance of power.
Indeed, the mission was accomplished; it did thwart the PML-N’s attempt to establish control over both houses of parliament. Winning the Senate election was particularly important for the ruling party to change the laws in order to remove the disqualification of the former prime minister. The Senate election had also assumed greater significance because of rising political polarisation and the approach of the general elections.
A major challenge for the PML-N now is how to maintain unity in its ranks in the aftermath of the latest setback. There may have been a few defections widening the margin of reversal, but still, there is no sign of cracks in the ruling coalition. In fact, there has been a marked stridency in the tenor of the members of the ruling coalition with their no-holds-barred attacks on the security establishment.
Now Sharif loyalists are engaged in fighting on two fronts. The battle lines are drawn more clearly with the security establishment shedding pretensions of being nonpartisan in the ongoing confrontation between the civilian government and the apex court. The latest warning by the top military leadership that it stands with the judiciary leaves nothing to doubt about the new template of power. That has increasingly marginalised the position of the executive in this emerging troika of power.
Moreover, the deepening political crisis has propelled the the military back in the driving seat in what is seen as a nexus with the judiciary that too is perceived to have become an arbiter of power. Has the backing of the military given greater impetus to judicial overdrive and brought the executive under increasing pressure?
Many observers have gone so far as to describe it as ‘judicial extremism’ that is encroaching even on parliament’s powers to legislate. Some recent Supreme Court judgements striking down legislation passed by parliament are seen to have caused imbalance in the distribution of power among various institutions of state.
There may be some credence to the argument that the judiciary and military have filled in the vacuum created by lack of governance and ineffectiveness of the other civilian institutions, but it is not the whole truth. One may agree that the ineffectiveness of parliament to resolve political issues has increased the burden on the apex court, but the judiciary must also refrain from getting involved in issues that come under the domain of other institutions.
Whatever the reason may be, such growing assertion by the security establishment and the courts has further distorted the balance of power thus intensifying the clash of institutions. The emergence of a new troika of power is reminiscent of the 1990s, the decade of elected civilian rule when the military and president who then enjoyed sweeping powers along with the prime minister formed the troika of power.
The annulment of the infamous 58-2 (b) clause of the Constitution that had given the president sweeping powers to dissolve parliament brought an end to that troika of power. With the office of the president having been reduced to a ceremonial post, the military’s position as an arbiter of power has also diminished.
But the growing empowerment of the judiciary in recent years, particularly after the action by the Supreme Court against Nawaz Sharif removing him from power, has created a new though informal power troika. It has provided the military with a new ally to keep a check on the executive.
Indeed, Nawaz Sharif is to a large extent himself responsible for the present state of affairs. His hubris and his small group of family members running the show had weakened civilian institutions and parliament thus creating a vacuum to be filled by the military and judiciary.
Sharif’s clash with the judiciary has been on personal grounds. Instead of clearing himself before the courts, he has chosen to undermine the apex court. There is certainly no principle involved in his battle with the two powerful members of the power troika. What happened in the Senate chairman election this week and the embarrassment caused by the defeat of the ruling coalition candidate reflect the declining hold of his party.
The deep state can only succeed by exploiting the weakness of the party whose entire politics seem to be revolving around the Sharif family. Instead of undermining the judiciary and confronting other state institutions, the party must try to protect the democratic system with the support of democratic forces.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2018