Moment of truth

October 11, 2020

Nawaz Sharif will have to walk the talk now after beating the war drum against the present political regime and its “alleged manufacturers”

“The mandate of the 2018 general elections was stolen from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). Now, it is time to act and show courage by standing up, against this regime and its ‘manufacturers’. I’m telling cowards among us to stay home. We will fight till the end and send this regime packing,” said Nawaz Sharif in his address last week to a gathering of his party’s ticket holders for the last election in the Punjab.

The former prime minister’s speech, latest in the ongoing series of his addresses from London, is being seen as a declaration of war against the government and the establishment. Sharif was allowed by a court to go abroad and get “medical treatment” while he was in jail following his conviction on charges of having assets beyond known means and was waiting for his appeal to be heard by the high court.

This speech comes almost a year after he left for London. The opposition alliance, named Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is aiming to hold a series of public rallies and protest demonstrations including a long march to Islamabad in January to oust “the regime”. Critics have described these developments as being motivated by PML-N’s need to bargain for a share in power and some political space.

Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, has been embroiled in a separate “assets beyond means” case. More recently a sedition case has been lodged against him and other senior PML-N leaders, including Maryam Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and heir apparent.

The sedition case registered by Punjab Police against the Sharifs is being seen as an attempt to pressure them. The police case reads that Sharif “is maligning [state] institutions and provoking the masses to rebel against the army and the government through his speeches from London”. PMLN and other opposition leaders have called this case “a tool for political victimization” which cannot prevent them from marching to Islamabad to “topple the regime”.

“This appears to be a tug-of-war as PMLN tries to gain political space. They are being confrontational towards the establishment because they are not getting any space in the present situation,” says Dr Mohammad Waseem, a professor of politics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), adding, “The PMLN is practicing brinksmanship by putting pressure on the present regime. The rulers are doing the same playing by putting them [the PMLN] under greater pressure through various cases by National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and others.”

He says that “Sharif has now identified military establishment as a political actor. He is not fighting the establishment; only putting pressure on it to remain neutral or get out of this game. The latter does not seem possible. The effort is on to enter into some form of a compromise at some point. That is why a new political stage is set against the regime and its military establishment supporters. Dr Waseem says that at present, the opposition parties do not seem to have the capacity to bring “millions of voters and supporters to the streets”.

“PML-N does not have that kind of support in the Punjab. The Pakistan Peoples Party does not have that kind of support either. The workers and activists of Maulana Fazulr Rehman represent a specific mindset and ideology,” he notes.

Rather, he says, the issue is that in the coming months these two major parties – the PPP and the PMLN – aim to achieve their separate objectives with help from each other. This can take the form of a demand for mid-term elections.

“There is the possibility of the establishment entering into a compromise by give-and-take, as it has been doing in the past, to tackle the situation,” he says. However, it is yet to be seen what kind of pressure the PML-N and the PPP can build.

The PDM has several components but at the moment the PML-N seems to be dominating the scene, especially, in the Punjab where they have strong support. Will this allow the PML-N to take a solo flight and enter into a comprise with the establishment is a question that haunts those in the PPP.

“The [creation of] Pakistan Democratic Movement is an important step towards a democratic Pakistan. Like the previous opposition movements in the history (MRD & ARD) resisting dictatorships, the PDM has united all democratic forces. It has a clear, concrete plan of action to restore freedom and dignity of our people, parliament, democracy,” PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto has said in a tweet.

For its part, the ruling alliance does not seem to be prepared for a public movement. The government is calling the PMLN’s narrative, especially that of the hardliner group within the PML-N, as the narrative of the ‘enemy’ India which it argues is “maligning the military establishment” and “creating hurdles in the progress of the country”.

“I think it is the last battle of Nawaz Sharif and he is going to fight. If he loses he would want to be remembered as a person who stood up for civilian supremacy. Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are desperate to bring their heirs to the power game,” says Rasul Bakhsh Rais. He adds, “Their target is toppling this regime before Imran Khan gets a majority in the Senate in the coming months.” He says that he expects a “big political show” but ultimately the opposition, and especially the PML-N, “would get nothing with this narrative”. “If they paralyze the cities and the capital it will not benefit either side,” he says.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at   [email protected] [email protected]

Moment of truth