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July 8, 2018

A new ball game


July 8, 2018

In some ways, it was a judgment foretold. But it still came as a shock. And emotions were raised by the excruciatingly long suspense during the long hours spent waiting for it on Friday. Quite like a chase sequence in a thriller movie, it kept people across the country on the edge of their seats.

Finally, it was a 10-year jail term for Nawaz Sharif, the only person in Pakistan’s political history to have become prime minister three times. His daughter Maryam, who was well on her way to inherit the leadership of the country’s major political party, was awarded seven years in jail by the accountability court.

Without any doubt, this is a landmark decision that has come in the midst of a rancorous election campaign. Just over two weeks from now, a new set of civilian rulers will be chosen by the people and that will be a verdict of another kind.

How will the judgment of July 6, 2018 influence the election on July 25? This now is the big question. What is certain is that politics in Pakistan has become a new ball game. Since the verdict against Nawaz Sharif and his daughter is Imran Khan’s vindication, one assessment would be that the PTI, that has gained ground in recent weeks with large-scale defections from the PML-N, now has an open field. At long last, the idea of Imran Khan as the prime minister is credible.

At the same time, there is the possibility of a wave of sympathy rising for Nawaz Sharif’s party. Equally plausible is the spread of despondency or loss of hope among its supporters. Much will depend on the strategy adopted by Nawaz Sharif, who was in London with her daughter to look after a seriously unwell Kulsoom Nawaz when the verdict was announced in Islamabad. A plea for the postponement of the verdict for seven days was rejected by the accountability court.

In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, there was a natural rush of emotions on both sides of the political divide. The PTI’s supporters came out to celebrate the humiliation of their formidable adversary. Shahbaz Sharif, who formally leads the PML-N as its president, rejected the verdict and exhorted party workers to remain steadfast in their commitment to the party and work diligently to win the electoral contest of July 25.

On his part, Nawaz Sharif held a press conference in London to announce that, “I am coming to Pakistan to face prison”. But he did not give any specific date for his return. It will depend on improvement in his wife’s health. Maryam sat by his side and both retained their defiant stance.

Imran Khan’s immediate response was predictable. “This is the beginning of a new Pakistan”, he declared. He thanked God because the struggle he had waged for 22 years had finally borne fruit. Naturally, there were other responses by other political leaders. But we need to wait for two or three days for the initial surge of passions to settle down. We will then have to quietly reflect on this major development and make sense of how the political situation is evolving in the run-up to a momentous electoral contest.

A week, it is famously said, is a long time in politics. We have so many more days before the people get an opportunity to cast their votes. Much can happen during this interregnum. Shahbaz Sharif has vowed to pursue all legal and constitutional avenues to seek justice. There is this right to appeal against the verdict within 10 days.

A lot of suspense rests on how the National Accountability Bureau – though it has assured that no candidate will be arrested before the election – moves ahead to dispel the impression that it has devoted more attention to leaders and bureaucratic associates of Nawaz Sharif’s party. There already are some whispers that NAB is casting its net wide enough to include Sindh. In any case, the plot is bound to thicken.

Since nomination papers have been filed and processed and the final list of candidates has been posted by the Election Commission, there is little room for any more shifting of loyalties in the emerging political contest. But there may still be some stirrings in the hearts and minds of a number of ‘electables’ who have been changing their affiliations. The point, simply, is that an occasion has arisen to encourage a reassessment of the political situation. It is as if a new hand is being dealt to political players.

Does this mean that there will now be fresh opportunities or liabilities for the main contenders such as the PML-N, PTI and the PPP? Ah, but there are other perhaps equally strong contenders in the arena. There are, for instance, new religious parties that have burst upon the electoral scene with an unprecedented energy and resolve. In addition, there is considerable comment on how as many as 119 candidates have acquired the ‘jeep’ as their election symbol.

Our focus has generally been restricted to the prospects of the three mainstream parties. That is justified against the backdrop of the previous electoral exercises, particularly the ones in 2008 and 2013. We have had the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl, together in the alliance with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) which has now been revived.

However, participating in the general election for the first time is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan that had gained prominence with its sit-in on the Faizabad interchange in Islamabad last year. Its intimidating power may be judged by the fact that it was able to paralyse life in Islamabad and Rawalpindi for about 20 days. Its leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, is able to get away with unbelievably rude remarks against even the higher judiciary. The party has fielded more than 100 candidates in Punjab’s 117 constituencies.

Then there is the Milli Muslim League. Since it has been denied registration by the Election Commission because of its alleged links with the banned outfit Jamaat-ud-Dawa of Hafiz Saeed, it is using the platform of the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek. There are religious leaders known for their militancy who have jumped into electoral politics.

Where do these obscurantist elements belong in Imran’s ‘new’ Pakistan? Imran himself, instead of opting for a progressive vision, is seen to be embracing an orthodox outlook. Irrespective of how the vulnerability of the PML-N will affect the political line-up, the overall drift, in an ideological sense, is very alarming.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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