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What Is The Future Of Nawaz Sharif In Pakistani Politics?

Umer Farooq writes about how Nawaz Sharif annoyed the powerful military establishment by engaging in anti-military diatribes after he was ousted from power through a Supreme Court verdict. But would the military allow Sharif to return to power in the future by participating in politics?

Nawaz Sharif is a great survivor. He survived the onslaught of a military-backed president Ishaq Khan in 1993. He also survived an oppressive regime of the military dictator General (r) Pervez Musharraf, and he even survived after committing the mistake of leaving the country and seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia when his colleagues were languishing in jails in Pakistan. But this time, they say, the situation is different.

Some believe that he won’t be able to survive the conviction by a civilian court in a financial corruption case in which his guilt has been proven beyond any doubt. This time he is not facing a military government which lacks legitimacy in public eyes. Rather he is facing a popular leader like Imran Khan, who is fully backing the court verdict against Nawaz Sharif and the accountability process initiated against the former prime minister. Everything is fair and transparent in this case.

In the past, Nawaz Sharif used to stand on a high moral pedestal. This time he has lost all moral standing. Those who argue that Nawaz Sharif won’t survive this time appear as convincing as those who argue that he would continue to play a crucial role in the politics of Pakistan in the foreseeable future.

The legal constraints on the person of Nawaz Sharif, which disallows him from participating in parliamentary politics of the country seems insurmountable at this stage. He is convicted in a criminal case and thus barred from participating in country’s politics for life.

However this is not the first time that he is barred from participating in politics by courts. The first time he was barred from participating in politics during the military government of Musharraf when he was convicted by the courts in corruption cases and hijacking of a passenger plane.

Pakistan’s history, though, is full of precedents, where political leaders barred by the law and the courts from participating in politics, continued to play a crucial role in the country’s politics through other means. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is a prime example of this. Almost 40 years after he was hanged by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, his grandson continues to play politics in his name and is also banking on the vote bank of his grandfather.

So it is a proven axiom of Pakistan’s political history and tradition that legal restrictions hardly matter when it comes to practical political participation of those politicians who find themselves on the wrong side of the country’s powerful establishment.

Three factors are important in any analysis of Nawaz Sharif’s role in the future of the country’s politics — his popularity, the condition of his political party and his position inside it, and the performance sheet of his political rivals, especially the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.

It should be kept in mind that Nawaz Sharif’s increasing popularity would enhance his hold over the structures of his party. Similarly, lack of performance of the PTI government is likely to increase the popularity of Nawaz Sharif. It can work in the opposite direction as well.

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For example, if the PTI government performs well in the next one year, it is likely to decrease Nawaz Sharif’s popularity and would loosen his grip on his party structure. Therefore, much would depend on how the PTI government performs during its current tenure.

Nawaz Sharif’s Popularity

All the public opinion polls in pre-2018 parliamentary elections period counted Nawaz Sharif as the most popular politician in central Punjab. Currently, opinion poll companies are not carrying out fresh surveys or making its results public as it could annoy the incumbent government.

But it is a fact that Nawaz Sharif’s popularity in Punjab has increased manifolds in the post-2018 parliamentary election period.

This has been the result of those surveys which have been conducted by private companies and those which have been conducted by government agencies in recent months. The situation for Imran Khan’s government is alarming to say the least.

Position Of Nawaz Sharif’s Political Party

Since the passing of the Panama verdict more than two years ago, Nawaz Sharif has proved all rumours about his political fate to be false. His party hasn’t disintegrated and the assorted group of electables that he had put together on his return from exile in 2008 hasn’t fragmented yet.

After the Panama verdict, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was still in power, political analysts gave two explanations as to why the party was still united. First, the party continued to distribute rewards among the electables in Punjab to keep this group, mostly from southern and western Punjab, loyal to him in tough times. Sharif controlled the sources of patronage and rewards in Punjab.

Also, the fact that the party was in power in Punjab and the Centre makes it extremely relevant in the politics of central and northern Punjab. But even after the PML-N suffered defeat in 2018 parliamentary elections and lost power in Islamabad and Lahore, his party showed no signs of disintegration.

In practical terms this would mean that the so-called electables of Punjab have not lost hope in their political future, despite the fact that Nawaz Sharif is languishing in jail and there is no chance of his release in the foreseeable future.

One must also remember that electables of Punjabi politics are embedded in the civil and military bureaucracy and there is a continuous flow of information reaching them from the power corridors of Islamabad and Lahore.

The electables of Punjab, who have a strong tradition of jumping out of every sinking ship, still think that their association with Nawaz Sharif would get them votes in the future as well.

Performance Of Nawaz Sharif’s Political Rivals

The third factor influencing Nawaz Sharif’s political future is the performance of his political rivals, especially the PTI government in Islamabad and the rest of Punjab.

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The performance of the PTI governments in the Centre and in Punjab is dismal to say the least. Their performance has now become a subject of many jokes in Islamabad’s and Lahore’s political circles. The images that the media is showing are mostly about Imran Khan’s actual performance in comparison to the tall claims he made during his days in opposition.

So far, all the economic indicators in the country are dismal and people’s economic hardships have increased manifold. Any miracle that the Imran Khan government could or would perform in the coming days would dampen Nawaz Sharif’s chances of staging a comeback. But for now the PTI government’s dismal performance is pushing the common man to look towards other political alternatives.

The PTI government’s ineptness and inexperience is leading the government towards a fiasco of horrendous proportions. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif’s own performance as prime minister was not very impressive, but the present PTI government’s failure would inject a new life into his political career. You might see Sharif brought to the capital city riding on the shoulders of a popular wave of support. Don’t get surprised if you see that happening in the next one to two years.

Nawaz Sharif has also annoyed the powerful military establishment by engaging in anti-military diatribes after he was ousted from power through a Supreme Court verdict. Would the military allow Nawaz Sharif to return to power in the future by participating in politics?

It is almost impossible to remove the mistrust that the military has now developed towards Nawaz Sharif. But the military in post-Zia period has often developed working relations with political leaders and political forces which they didn’t trust in the first place. A prime example in this connection is that of Benazir Bhutto when she came to power in 1993 after striking a deal with the then military leaders, although the military didn’t trust her.

The political behaviour of the military in the last 30 to 40 years clearly shows that they don’t keep any permanent political alliances. Though they have permanent political interests, they don’t have permanent political allies. Ditching a horse which is losing the race would continue to be a routine matter for the powerful military.

At present, the military is concerned about the developing countervailing force in Punjab province, which otherwise provides a constant support base to the military and acts as its recruiting ground. There seems to be an emerging concern within the military over the rise of countervailing forces.

In Pakistan’s history, this countervailing force has traditionally remained restricted to smaller provinces like Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. Presently, Nawaz Sharif is emerging as the most visible face of this countervailing force against the military in Punjab.

It is fashionable to be anti-establishment in the country’s politics nowadays, but even Nawaz Sharif knows that keeping such adversarial relations with the military would push him further away from power.


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