IT is no more just a matter of a differing tack within the ranks. The latest defections, engineered or otherwise, have virtually wiped out the PML-N’s prospects in the coming elections in south Punjab and made it more difficult for the party to defend its bastion along the Grand Trunk Road. The dice is now more heavily loaded against the former ruling party. The outcome seems already certain before the polls. But the game is not over yet.
There is more gloom than hope as the country moves closer towards its second consecutive democratic transition. Politics is a dirty game but it has gotten dirtier with the ‘angels’ getting into the act. Surely, the last-minute rejection of the PML-N ticket by the candidates has not been just an act of jumping off a drowning ship. It was a well-calculated move not to give time to the PML-N to put up alternative candidates.
Only a moron could believe that such large-scale desertion on the eve of elections was driven by the sudden awakening of these politicians’ conscience. The allegation about the role of security agencies in engineering the revolt is not entirely baseless, though there may be some other factors too behind the defections. The swelling number of electable independent candidates has reinforced conspiracy theories about ‘managed’ elections.
Those standing independent not only include defectors from the mainstream parties but also members of some religious outfits like the Milli Muslim League, an offshoot of the banned Jamaatud Dawa, that has been refused registration by the Election Commission. The disparate bloc may affect the electoral scene in parts of Punjab that remains the main battleground. The squeeze may have weakened the PML-N, yet it cannot push the party out of contention. The election scene still remains murky less than three weeks to polling day.
The widening rift between the Sharif brothers has further compounded the party’s predicament.
Surely, the PML-N candidates’ exodus has given a further boost to the PTI that has put its entire stake into the turncoats jumping onto its bandwagon. Unlike in 2013, when the party’s main power base was the youth, Imran Khan is now looking towards the pirs for their blessings. The PTI has certainly gained momentum by taking advantage of the ‘engineered defections’ from the PML-N, but there is still a big question about the party reaching the magic figure or even close to it in order to fulfil Imran Khan’s dream of finally making it to the pedestal of power.
It is evident that the long absence of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam from the country has seriously affected the PML-N election campaign. The internal squabble over ticket allocations and the defections have caused creeping demoralisation among the supporters. There is no evidence of any sympathy wave for Nawaz Sharif sweeping across Punjab that could enhance the party’s electoral fortunes.
In the absence of his older brother, Shahbaz Sharif has effectively taken over charge of the party and its election campaign. But he has miserably failed to motivate the party supporters let alone inspire the voters. Notwithstanding his reputation as a good administrator, his uncharismatic persona cannot lift the party up. His politically un-savvy remarks during his recent trip to Karachi put the party in an extremely embarrassing situation.
Moreover, the widening rift between the Sharif brothers has further compounded the party’s predicament. The PML-N paradox has been exposed by the two opposite narratives espoused by the brothers. While the elder Sharif and his daughter have shown no change in their hard-line confrontationist position, the younger sibling has taken an increasingly conciliatory path. In fact, Shahbaz has publicly challenged Nawaz’s stance on khalai makhlooq being behind his ouster and undermining his party.
As party president, Shahbaz is seeking a vote on the performance of his government in the province rather than on the anti-establishment agenda being pursued by the elder Sharif. While most PML-N candidates would like Nawaz to return home and lead the election campaign, his uncompromising stance has few takers.
That is where the line pursued by Shahbaz prevails among the senior members whose only interest is to win the elections. For them, the policy of confrontation can only divide the party and spoil its chances to return to power. The latest defections of candidates have reinforced this argument. The widening policy gulf is also illustrated by Shahbaz’s recent TV interviews where he stressed on the formation of a national government, even if the PML-N won the elections, and opening negotiations for a new political charter involving all stakeholders including the security agencies in order to face the internal and external challenges faced by the country. This positon is contrary to Nawaz’s uncompromising stance.
While there is no option for Nawaz but to come back at the earliest to keep himself politically alive, his presence is likely to sharpen the contradiction within the party between the two opposing positions. Undoubtedly, his leading the campaign would help inspire voters, but it would also intensify the clash with the security agencies. It will be for senior party members and the candidates to choose between the two opposite narratives.
Yet another predicament facing the PML-N and its leadership in the run-up to the elections is the possibility of the former prime minister and Maryam Nawaz being convicted on graft charges. The accountability court is winding up the trial. With the judgement all set to be announced before the elections, the entire political dynamics will inevitably change. This situation would present a serious challenge to both the PML-N and the establishment.
Some PML-N leaders believe that Shahbaz’s reconciliation offer could provide a way out of this situation. But what would that way out be — one that is acceptable for Nawaz as well as the military establishment? It is quite evident that the establishment will not agree to anything less than the former prime minister leaving politics. It is highly improbable that Nawaz will accept any such deal. There is no resolution of the crisis in sight, which renders the second democratic transition extremely controversial.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2018