Sunday June 23, 2024

Can Sharif counter Imran’s onslaught?

By Mazhar Abbas
August 01, 2016

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has two more years to complete his first full term despite being elected thrice as chief executive of the country. Can he reach the milestone to see the second government in 70 years of Pakistan’s history to complete its tenure? It will be a test of his political acumen how he overcomes the political challenges ahead in the wake of the protest call, given by his archrival Imran Khan.

Imran has announced a protest movement from August 7 over Panama leaks, saying it would be a decisive movement against the Nawaz government. Interestingly, he will start the protest for the first time from his ‘home ground’ Peshawar, where Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is in power, indicating that he is keeping all options open.

Although his decision to go solo must have made Sharifheave a sigh of relief, some PTI leaders still indicate that the final movement would be launched from a joint platform. Thus Sharif may continue to face pressure in the coming weeks from the opposition, PTI and the other parties, he will have to play his cards well and not allow other opposition parties to join hands with the PTI.

Thus, it’s a test of both Sharif and Imran, the two key political players, who will be up-in-arms against each other in the next general elections, due in 2018. Sharif has a few political advantages over Imran Khan at the moment particularly after his party swept Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) elections. Opposition's division over the launch of protest, which led to Imran's decision to go solo, appears to be in the Pakistan Muslim League-N favour. Secondly, PTI's internal rift is also causing problems for Imran to go all out against Sharif. Thirdly, as situation appears today, this movement is without any 'script' and this match would not be supervised by any neutral umpire.

However, it would be Sharif's political mistake if he tries to underestimate Imran's capability to pull crowds. Sharif must remember that he had almost lost the political battle in 2014, had the opposition not stood for the parliament. Therefore, whether it’s a solo flight or is joined by others, the PML-N government must handle it with care. A counter-campaign could often be counterproductive as it gives political boost to the movement.

From Monday onwards, we may see rise in political temperatures, and it would be up to Sharif and his team either to make it cool off or flare up. Sharif, who is in Murree, will be spending few more days in a much relaxed environment. So, one can expect that he would take measures to lower the political temperature as well. Some of his colleagues have suggested that in response to Imran Khan’s protest plan, he too should start holding public meetings. This may go in favour of Imran Khan, as happened in 2014.

What will be his counter strategy? Will he push the rest of the opposition parties to join hands with Imran Khan or reach some kind of a compromise with them, in a bid to isolate Imran Khan? For this, he has to offer something to satisfy parties like Pakistan People’s Party.

Only recently, the government and the opposition reached an agreement over four members of the Election Commission of Pakistan, the first consensus ECP. But, the Panama leaks still haunts Sharif, and if he manages to survive this crisis and overcomes Imran’s second campaign, his government may not face any major hurdle before the next elections.

Thus, Sharif's political handling through his closest aides like Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Speaker National Assembly Ayaz Sadiq would determine whether Imran Khan’s movement would be defeated or we may witness some political turmoil.

Sharif had a good beginning when he won 2013 general elections, and could have averted 2014 dharna, if he had reached an agreement with the PTI in the initial stages of the demand for reopening of four constituencies.

Secondly, Sharif had a good working relationship with the PPP till the mid-2015, when suddenly and surprisingly NAB reopened some pending inquiries and the FIA too got active in Sindh. Some of the actions including the arrest of Dr Asim Hussain had even surprised the prime minister. Sources said he never wanted to spoil working relationship with the PPP.

Thirdly, while Sharif continued to have a good working relationship with ANP and JUI-F, it kept its distance with MQM for reasons other than political. MQM's decision not to join PTI's campaign can lead to an opportunity for talks.

It is true that the kind of tough time which Sharif had given to the PPP government in 2008, in its five years, has not been given by the PPP during the PML-N’s three years. But, it is also true that Asif Ali Zardari himself must be blamed after he backed out from a written commitment over restoration of judges.

The PPP governments had always been weak in Centre, as it never been able to have its government in Punjab since 1988, nor has a chance in the near future. Sharifs always have this advantage over his political rivals.

But Zardari gave a positive message to Sharif when the PML-N government won 2013 elections. "Mian Sahib, we will not create any problems or do any politics till the next general elections," he said, while congratulating the PML-N. It is also a fact that the PPP, ANP and MQM never got level playing field in the last elections due to direct threats from Taliban and their leaders also came under attack. The ANP in particular became a victim.

Sharif, when came to power, took some mature political decisions. He made Dr Abdul Malik, leader of the National Party (NP) as Chief Minister of Balochistan, despite PML-N’s majority and thus gave a positive message to nationalists.

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), he did not use traditional tactics of horse-trading, and create hurdles in the formation of PTI-led government. Pakistani politics had suffered a lot due to horse-trading in the 1980s and 1990s.

In Sindh, the PPP never had any problem in formation of provincial government and now has a new chief minister too. However, Sharif mishandled Imran Khan’s demand of alleged rigging in the four constituencies. Had a judicial commission been constituted or even the PM had accepted Imran’s demand soon after elections, he could have avoided a political turmoil in the country for 126 days. 

Whatever happened in 126 days of dharna, followed by formation of a judicial commission, the fact remained that re-elections were held in three out of four constituencies, which gave a political mileage to Imran Khan, though the JC report was a setback for him.

So, now the choice is with Sharif: whether he takes a confrontational path to counter Imran Khan or tries to ease the tension and does not allow the opposition to join hands against him. But, it will also be a test of Imran Khan’s political maturity. By going 'solo' and that too with party's internal problems, he has taken a lot of risk and has already given an advantage to the government.

The PTI today is not as united as it was two years ago, nor as organised as it was in the past, which had also reflected in party's back-to-back defeats in the elections, except for in KP. Will he merely go for dharna in Lahore in the first phase and march on Islamabad in the final phase or adopt a traditional political agitation like wheel-jam, rallies or court arrest etc. Perhaps, the PTI may not be able to go to that extent nor has the capacity unless joined by its alley, Jamaat-e-Islami, which too is sailing in two boats, after it recently joined hands with the PML in AJK, elections.

The next two years would be a fight of nerve for both Sharif and Imran Khan. Whoever holds his nerve and plays his card well in a challenging time will be successful. Opposition normally has an advantage over government in power particularly when elections are not far. 

The challenges before democracy today are of different nature. While civilian governments faced challenges of establishing good governance, transparent accountability mechanism, the political parties are unable to establish system of change of leaders and they are facing dictatorship getting weaker due to massive corruption. 

If Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League, PML-N had enforced 'Charter of Democracy,' things would have been much different today.  The writer is the senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.