STIFF sentences handed down to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his ostensible political successor and daughter, Maryam Nawaz, in a corruption case by an accountability court will pose some tough questions for the PML-N leaders ahead of the elections due in under three weeks.
The verdict, no doubt, will be challenged in a high court and the two leaders who are currently in London at the bedside of Mr Sharif’s critically ill spouse Begum Kulsoom Nawaz will seek bail, while their appeals are being heard.
However, if it has been decided to tighten the screw and deny them bail, then the party will be seriously handicapped in the final days of its election campaign as it has drawn largely on the appeal of the father and daughter.
After the courts disqualified the elder Sharif from even holding the party office, their prime ministerial candidate and party president, Shahbaz Sharif has been campaigning on his performance as chief executive of the country’s most populous province.
But there has been agreement among political commentators that it is the mass appeal of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter — and their narrative that they have asserted civilian supremacy and hence are being punished by powerful centres such as the country’s military — that has gained traction among the support base.
At this stage, many will be asking if the game is over for Nawaz Sharif. He holds the key to his own future.
Recent opinion polls, and I remain sceptical about these even where their methodology is said to be above board in the West, suggest that the PML-N enjoys a marginal advantage over the PTI compared to the wide gap that existed between the two last year.
This marginal advantage will now be under severe threat if campaigning is left to Shahbaz Sharif who, though seen as an effective administrator and one who can deliver mega projects to budget and on time, is so lacking in charisma.
How crucial this element will be can be gauged by Shahbaz Sharif’s immediate reaction at a news conference which followed the announcement of the court verdict. He made a perfunctory statement rejecting the court’s decision and calling it ‘politically-motivated’.
If anyone was expecting more than that, ie fireworks and defiant words from Shahbaz Sharif, his insipid performance and a near self-defeatist tone would have deflated them and the morale of the party rank and file. He failed to provide inspiration, as one analyst noted.
I understand that Shahbaz Sharif chose to ignore the advice he received to go full throttle and paid heed to the advisers who counselled a softly, softly approach. This may have been pragmatic in terms of possibly obviating the wrath of powerful state institutions.
What it won’t achieve is a surge in the support and mobilisation of voters; the workers will take the lead from the attitude and demeanour of the PML-N president who himself sounded downbeat to say the least. As these lines were being written, Nawaz Sharif announced he would return home as soon as his wife regained consciousness (the exact date of his return is still awaited) and face those ‘who have handed this judgement’ to the judge to deliver. Maryam Nawaz was equally defiant.
This crisis will be a test for a political party and machine called the PML-N which seemed to have disintegrated after the 1999 coup and largely morphed into the PML-Q, and was only revived when PPP leader Benazir Bhutto adroitly outmanoeuvred the military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf.
It was Ms Bhutto who convinced Mr Sharif to end his exile in Saudi Arabia and UK to participate in the 2008 elections. On top of that, the then chief justice, whose attempted ouster had cost Musharraf dearly and left him weakened, also ruled in Sharif’s favour paving his path to power in Punjab that year and in the country in 2013.
The father’s and daughter’s defiance and their calling out the military as their tormentors-in-chief was the stuff of popular politics and something a leader like Benazir Bhutto thrived on. The next few weeks will make clear whether or not the PML-N is suited to that sort of politics in its power base of Punjab.
No analysis of the current travails of the PML-N and the Sharifs would be incomplete without the mention of PTI chief Imran Khan to whose credit is the dogged fight that saw the Sharifs in the dock in these cases.
After the Panama Papers were first leaked, and the Sharifs (though Nawaz Sharif’s name was not mentioned in them) were cited for the ownership of London properties, Imran Khan single-handedly led the fight to have the matter addressed one way or the other.
A super-confident Nawaz Sharif, perhaps given his huge majority in parliament, opted not to listen to the opposition PPP as he was offered a way out of the crisis when Khurshid Shah suggested the formation of a parliamentary committee to look into the scandal.
This would have been tantamount to hitting the issue into long grass but that was not to be. Once Sharif rejected the PPP proposal and, after initial reluctance, the Supreme Court took up the petitions of Imran Khan and a couple of other politicians, there was no certainty which way the case would go.
His disqualification by the Supreme Court and now this judgement by the accountability court have followed. At this stage, many would be asking if the game is over for Nawaz Sharif. He holds the key to his own future, whether or not an establishment-tamed media is sympathetic to him.
He says he will return soon. If he does, he may stay relevant politically, even if in prison, and possibly inspire, galvanise and retain crucial support, with just a couple of weeks to go to polling day. The timing of his return is of the essence, and the decision will be a difficult one, given that his wife is critically ill.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2018