Is the party over?

July 15, 2018

With just 10 days to the general elections, the future of Nawaz Sharif and his political party PML-N remains mired in confusion

Is the party over?

The political scene appears grim ahead of the upcoming general elections, after the NAB judgment against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar in the Avenfield reference.

The verdict has not surprised political observers. Yet, there is little clarity among them if this verdict will damage Nawaz Sharif’s credibility or will gain him sympathy from the general public. Bemused, they are asking if this verdict is the end or the beginning of a crisis?

Those who are trying to portray this verdict as the end of the crisis are justified in the light of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s history of surrender. After the military coup in October, 1999, a majority of the legislators belonging to the PML-N shifted their loyalty overnight, and joined Musharraf. As for the Sharifs themselves, they had packed their bags to Saudi Arabia after entering into a deal with the establishment.

This time, there were some initial signs of trouble in the party, when lawmakers from South Punjab in the earlier part of the election year parted ways with the ruling PML-N, and announced the launch of a mass movement -- Junoobi Punjab Suba Mahaaz -- to make South Punjab a separate province. Then, just before the Avenfield reference verdict was announced against Sharifs, a number of former party legislators decided to part ways with PML-N. In his first press conference after the verdict, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif was primarily focused on averting confusion within the party, and on reassuring the party activists and candidates that PML-N will contest the upcoming general elections with full force.

Political analysts are of the opinion that it is the undecided voters who will select the election outcome on July 25. Till the undecided voter makes up his or her mind, it is difficult to predict how the verdict will influence the election outcome.

Right after the announcement of the NAB judgment on July 6, a number of PML-N activists in different cities of the country held rallies to express solidarity with their leader. Safdar held a rally in Rawalpindi before surrendering to the police.

"We know what is being done with Nawaz Sharif and on whose behest, but we cannot name them because of our love for that ‘institution’," Muhammad Iftikhar Bhatti, a 70-year-old Islamabad-based PML-N loyalist, tells The News on Sunday, appreciating Nawaz Sharif’s determination to come back to Pakistan and fight for democracy and civilian supremacy. "Our leader’s presence in the country will give us more confidence in the campaign and will definitely create a sympathy wave."

The verdict has not surprised political observers. Yet, there is little clarity among them if this verdict will damage Nawaz Sharif’s credibility or will gain him sympathy from the general public.

Political analyst Zahid Hussain does not see any major wave of sympathy for the ousted PM yet, but agrees the party’s support base has not been disturbed by his disqualification or conviction. "I don’t think that Sharif’s narrative is gaining popularity but his participation in the campaign is definitely making a positive impact on it; many PML-N supporters are fond of Sharif regardless of corruption charges. Whether the party leaders follow him or not is questionable as their major concern is to win the elections and be on the right side of the establishment."

However, the primary issue for PML-N right now is not how to influence the election outcome, but to keep the party intact in the days leading up to the elections. Internal discord in the wake of ticket distribution was one of the visible signs that hidden powers were out to create divisions within the party. Also, conflicting narratives of Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif clearly pointed out that all was not well with PML-N. The aggressive posturing of Nawaz Sharif against the military and judiciary in the wake of Panama verdict in July 2017 clearly put him on a different course from his brother who was not ready to say a word against the military establishment.

Those who are predicting an end to the crisis say PML-N will evaporate into thin air just like it happened in the past, and the upcoming elections will bring in a fresh and fully mandated new government into power. However, this seems highly unlikely as public opinion polls show a clear preference for PML-N by a majority of the population in Central Punjab. In the end, everything will depend on the shrewdness of PML-N leadership and how it keeps the party intact.

So far the party, in the words of political journalist Fasih-ur-Rehman Khan, shows no signs of disintegration, "The difference in the narrative and rhetoric of both the brothers is by design. There is no chance of division within PML-N, as both Nawaz and Shahbaz see their survival together".

There were predictions about Shahbaz Sharif parting with elder brother on account of a difference in perception. However, the party leaders say this speculation has been going on for quite a long time, "Many attempts have been made to create divisions within the PML-N but all failed. Nawaz Sharif is the leader and his decisions prevail, his directives prevail," says Central Leader PML-N Mushahidullah Khan. "Shahbaz Sharif has no reason to part ways with the N-League as it is his party and he has been nominated as party head by Nawaz Sharif himself."

PML-N leaders point out that their party structure has been under tremendous pressure from the state machinery and intelligence agencies, "It is only our party which is under pressure from the establishment. No other party is facing this pressure," adds Khan.

All signs point to the fact that the political system as a whole will come under tremendous pressure in the time to come. Some experts of the civil-military relations are of the opinion that the system is already under pressure on account of the increased acceptability of Pakistani military establishment in the region.

"Military’s external legitimacy and credibility has increased in the past few years," says Saeed Shafqat, a civil-military relations expert in Pakistan. By increased external legitimacy, he means that every regional player, with an interest in security arrangement prevailing in the region, wants Pakistan’s military to play its role in stabilising Afghanistan. "Russians are in talks with the army leadership, Iranians alongwith Chinese and Americans are in talks with the Pakistani army," adds Shafqat.

Whoever comes to power in Islamabad in the wake of July 25 parliamentary elections will make little difference to the overall pattern of civil-military relations in the country. Pakistani political class is under the impression that by possessing the power to appoint key officials in the military, they can dominate the pattern of civil-military relations in the country. "Nawaz Sharif appointed his own COAS and DG ISI, yet, look, where he stands. This means the Pakistani political leaders have no comprehension of how the institution of military works," says Shafqat.

Unfortunately, the political leadership has hardly ever invested in building political institutions which can serve as viable alternatives. "Dynastic politics can hardly serve as an alternative to military dominance," says Saeed Shafqat.

Is the party over?