Turning back the clock

Published February 4, 2024
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THREE court verdicts in one week on top of everything else should leave very little doubt in any mind that the ‘reset to 2016’ is being delivered, and by this time next week it will be clear whether or not the carefully crafted plan was successfully implemented.

The only outside chance, the slimmest if you like, of it failing will be on polling day. What if the rage of the supporters at what they see as injustice to their leader manifests itself in their voting in droves for the candidates endorsed by the party? How many votes can be tossed in the rubbish bin for one reason or another?

Given the sequence of events since Imran Khan’s falling out with his erstwhile backers and all the developments resulting from the crackdown on supporters after the May 9, 2023 folly, to the arrest, incarceration and sentencing of the leader, to the Supreme Court-endorsed ECP decision to leave the PTI bat-less on the ballot, there seems only one plausible scenario.

Yes, at this stage that, too, is no more than an educated guess but the wait isn’t too long now to see if the hypothesis is borne out by unfolding events. If it is, the PML-N will emerge as the winner and will be able to form a government, in all likelihood headed by Mian Nawaz Sharif.

If Imran Khan wishes to curtail the establishment’s role in politics, he would need to build bridges with potential allies.

For his part, the PTI leader will have to file and fight multiple appeals in superior courts against lower court verdicts jailing him, while also facing fresh prosecutions such as the one in the so-called Al Qadir Trust land deal where property tycoon Malik Riaz is alleged to have handed over a large tract of land to a trust managed by Imran Khan and his spouse in exchange for a £190 million favour.

The establishment’s rage over what was seen as a coup attempt on May 9 last year does not seem to be ebbing and it has pursued Imran Khan and his party with brutal vigour, which one estranged PML-N leader described as “worse than what we faced in 2018”.

Mr Sharif has long lamented about how his government was destabilised from 2016 onwards, and appeared to place the onus on the establishment to undo what it did then. Therefore, the crucial question is whether the reset to 2016 will also mean a continuation of the strong-arm methods used then and being utilised today.

This question is raised because these methods vitiate the political environment and have an adverse impact on the economy. The establishment has made it very clear that the economy is its top priority and that position is understandable in view of the end to the ‘war on terror’ dividend from the US.

Unless the economy stabilises and starts posting decent growth, the share in the cake of defence will also shrink. For now, the establishment and its current leader appear to have put all their faith in the PML-N and in Nawaz Sharif’s ability to steer the economy to safe shores and attain stable growth.

The signing of the Charter of Democracy with the PPP’s Benazir Bhutto in London ahead of the 2007-08 election marked a turning pointing in Mr Sharif’s politics. His travails since the 1999 coup threw him out of power and into prison and then forced him into a long exile seemed to have transformed him into a democrat.

From then on, he has by and large stood true to his new self, putting considerable distance between his politics of vendetta of the 1990s and his spirit of political accommodation which was underlined by the passage of the 18th Amendment as also the National Finance Commission award.

When he came into power in 2013, many of his party stalwarts from KP suggested that they form a provincial coalition government with allies, new and old, as that was numerically possible, but he flatly refused, saying the PTI, being the largest single party in the province, had the right to form the government.

If indeed he becomes the next prime minister, his democratic credentials will be tested soon after the government is formed, because the establishment will recede into the background and he will have to take the blame if the current state of play does not change for the PTI leader.

Even if the establishment continues to weigh in on matters to do with the PTI leader, in the popular perception, Imran Khan’s vindictive policies, while in government, will have reverse-transformed the PML-N leader into his past, ie, 1990s’ self.

In opposition, as in government, Imran Khan has had little time for other political parties that he has looked at with contempt. But if he truly wishes to curtail the establishment’s role in politics, which grew considerably during his tenure in office, he would need to bite the bullet and build bridges with potential allies.

And these potential allies will inevitably include all major political parties. None of them feels happy about the establishment’s overreach and yet most run to it for help when one of them breaks rank to secure establishment help or is propped up by it.

Much of the establishment overreach happens in this day and age thanks to the assistance of civilian (political) proxies. So, whether in government or opposition, political parties will need to understand that their aim of civilian supremacy can only be attained in concert with their own kind, ie, other political parties in parliament, and not by pandering to extra-parliamentary forces.

Yes, you’d be right in saying this columnist is jumping the gun and painting scenarios that the voter will shred to bits on Feb 8. That could happen. Political analysis, especially in our conditions, is not an exact science. One can only look at various possibilities and assign probabilities to each. I’d be happy to be proved wrong by the voter as that would be democracy at its best.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2024

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