The by-election of NA-120, a National Assembly seat vacated in July due to the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Case verdict, was symbolic but significant. The victory of Sharif’s wife Mrs Kulsoom Nawaz was a foregone conclusion; however, there was a lot at stake for the Sharif family, including its political future. The victory will define the future political trajectory in Pakistan in the run-up to the 2018 elections.
Unwittingly, the NA-120 by-election turned into a referendum on validation or invalidation of Sharif’s ouster by the Supreme Court, when the opposition party, the PTI, responded to the PML-N’s bid to frame it as a chance for the electorate to reject the SC’s ruling. In her victory speech, Sharif’s daughter and his political successor, Maryam Nawaz, said that people had rejected the Panama Case verdict.
The win reaffirms that Sharif’s removal has not majorly dented his political standing. While not unscathed, he remains well entrenched in his political heartland – Punjab. Moreover, Mrs Nawaz’s entry into politics means that the Sharif brand of politics will survive in Pakistan in one form or the other. Booting out Sharif from Pakistan’s political landscape is not as easy as his opponents would have imagined.
The victory in the by-poll will also act as a unifying factor against any intra-party divisions or in-grouping within the PML-N. It will pacify the anxiety of those party cadres who might have been uncertain about their political future within the PML-N post Sharif’s ouster. It will block any possible defections for the near future, reassuring the party rank and file that Nawaz Sharif is still the centre of gravity that can hold the party together. Moreover, any winning strategy for the 2018 elections has to be worked out around his persona.
Following the Panama Case verdict, there are two shades of opinion prevailing within the PML-N. One school of thought believes in politics of defiance and resistance. This group advocates putting up a defiant fight against any possible attempts to pull a plug on Sharif’s political career. For them, the end of Sharif’s career will jeopardise the party’s chances of winning in the 2018 elections. This group also believes that walking away from the political arena without a tough competition will concede more space to the PTI.
The other group proposes a reconciliatory path, advising against confrontation with state institutions or unnecessary street agitation. It believes such an approach can put the entire system at risk, possibly resulting in the complete reversal of the democratic process in Pakistan. For this group, the PML-N’s best chance of winning the 2018 elections is to focus on good governance, timely completion of ongoing development projects and ending the energy crisis. Confrontation and agitation will sap energies and distract the party from achieving the stated goals.
However, it is certain now that the former will prevail over the latter. This means the start of the politics of defiance and confrontation by the PML-N: if the party has to go down, it will go down fighting instead of allowing a walkover to its political and apolitical opponents. With the PML-N ready to fight it out tooth and nail, Pakistani politics is likely to remain rocky.
The results of the by-poll also offer a glimpse into potential electoral trends in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Given the negligibly low number of votes bagged by the PPP, it is probable that the party may repeat its 2013-like abysmal performance in the 2018 elections. The PPP’s shrinking support base in Punjab, and the unexpectedly impressive show by Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s (JuD) political front Milli Muslim League (MML), is worrying for Pakistan’s overall democratic process.
The main competition in 2018 will be between the PML-N and the PTI, and Punjab will be the main battleground. Whoever will gain the majority in Punjab will be in a position to form the government in the centre. Notwithstanding its defeat, the narrow victory margin (15,000) in the by-poll indicates that the PTI has electorally gained from Sharif’s disqualification.
However, the victory in the by-election will not end the Sharif family’s political woes. On the contrary, their political troubles are going to intensify from this point onwards. If the members of the Sharif family do not turn up for the references filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), as expected, the anti-corruption body can issue arrest warrants for them.
By getting Sharif disqualified over corruption charges, the PTI has succeeded in framing the agenda of the 2018 elections around issues of accountability, transparency and corruption, not just development and good governance. This will potentially favour the PTI in the 2018 elections in Punjab’s urban constituencies. Politically, corruption is the issue of educated middle and upper-middle classes. If the 2018 election boils down to choosing a clean person as the future prime minister, then Imran Khan has no corruption charges against him. At least, in Punjab’s urban constituencies the PTI can translate these political advantages into electoral gains.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s current political landscape today resembles that of the 1990s, in that it is confrontational, acrimonious and zero-sum. This will complicate the unresolved issues of electoral reforms, appointment of a neutral caretaker government and a chief election commissioner.
Under these circumstances, the democratic process is likely to remain procedural (term completion and peaceful power transitions) rather than substantive – ie genuine civilian supremacy where parliament is supreme and sovereign over other state institutions.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.