The outgoing year of 2016 can be described as the year of confrontation and political status quo. The confrontation focused on the Panama Leaks (April onwards) between the PML-N government at the federal level and in Punjab on the one hand and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on the other. Despite the persistent efforts of the PTI to build pressure on the ruling PML-N through public rallies, tough talking and the threat to lock down Islamabad, the PML-N federal government managed to survive.
The circumstantial factors helped Nawaz Sharif to hold on to power. The Supreme Court postponed the Panama case because the Chief Justice was retiring, although 80 per cent of the case process had been completed. The military did not appear to be interested in direct assumption of political power. The major opposition parties could not join together to challenge the PML-N federal government; most of them were reluctant to acknowledge the fact that Imran Khan had emerged as the principal opposition leader. Imran Khan’s own political disposition did not make it easy for the opposition leaders to join him. His “solo” effort did unnerve the federal government but Imran Khan could not put his political act together to force Nawaz Sharif to resign.
The ruling PML-N has established a firm monopoly over the state machinery, bureaucracy, police and state resources and patronage in Punjab and at the federal level. The allocation of state resources and patronage is done in a highly partisan manner primarily on the basis of loyalty. The loyalty criterion also applies to senior bureaucratic appointments. This type of governance has created a large number of beneficiaries of the PML-N rule which include ambitious bureaucrats and others seeking prize jobs, government contractors, supplies of goods and services to government departments, seekers of projects from development funds and real estate business. The big business in Punjab also prefers to work closely with the government. The future of these categories of people and groups is very closely linked with the current power arrangements headed by the PML-N. The recent local government election of chairpersons at the district or city levels in Punjab has brought forward a new class of PML-N beneficiaries.
The most serious challenge for the ruling PML-N in 2017 is how to protect its total monopoly of state power, resources and patronage in Punjab. This monopoly will become more important as the country moves closer to the new general elections. The PML-N rule can run into serious trouble if any competing power centre emerges in Punjab from the opposition, the bureaucracy or the military. When the PTI attempted to challenge the PML-N monopoly by threatening to lock down Islamabad on November 2, the federal government and the Punjab government used the state apparatus to neutralise the PTI challenge. The province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) was blocked at the Punjab provincial border so as not to allow the K-P Chief Minister and his supporters to enter Punjab and Islamabad.
Civil-military relations ran into problems from time to time. In the last week of January, Army Chief Raheel Sharif announced that he would not seek extension of service on the completion of his term. Nawaz Sharif gave space to the military in managing security affairs but allowed his close associates to publicly criticise the military. The Corps Commanders’ meeting in August expressed concern on non-implementation of the National Action Plan and the criticism of the military and the intelligence agencies by some leaders belonging to the ruling coalition.
Another controversy developed about a news leakage of a national security meeting in the Prime Minister House. The Corps Commanders in their meeting in October described the news item as “false and fabricated.” The Army wanted some punitive action against those who issued the news. However, as the close associates of Nawaz Sharif were involved in it, the Prime Minister appointed a commission to investigate the matter to delay action. Nawaz Sharif wants to avail of the change of command in the Army and the ISI to wrest the initiative from the Army on security issues and wants the Army to forget about the news item issue. The efforts to tame the military can backfire.
Terrorist incidents declined with the success of Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. The Army and paramilitary forces are busy with the return and rehabilitation of the people who got displaced due to the military operation in the tribal areas. The Army will have to stay active in the tribal areas to ensure that the Taliban do not return. A good number of Taliban and other extremists have escaped to Afghanistan or to urban areas of Pakistan. Though the Army and the Rangers have improved the security situation in Karachi, the PPP government in Sindh is not ready to allow the Rangers to take any action in interior Sindh. Similarly, the Punjab government has not so far allowed the Army and the Rangers to take independent action against the hard-line activists and sectarian groups in Punjab.
Five major terrorist attacks took place in the year: attack on a university in Charsadda, Lahore Iqbal Town park attack, an attack in Quetta on lawyers, another attack on a police training school outside Quetta and the attack on Shah Noorani shrine in Balochistan.
Among the political parties, the MQM faced the most serious internal crisis. Musstafa Kamal, former MQM Mayor of Karachi, returned and launched himself in politics with a press conference on March 3. Later, he established the Pak Sarzameen Party. The MQM got further divided into MQM-Pakistan and the MQM-London. It is difficult to suggest if the split between the MQM-London and Pakistan is genuine.
Asif Ali Zardari returned to Pakistan on December 23 to revive the PPP. This depends on whether Zardari can stay in Pakistan for an extended period to rebuild the party and distances the party from the PML-N? If the PPP continued with the policy of reconciliation with the PML-N, its political future in Punjab will be doomed. The PPP needs to assert its autonomous character, strengthen its links with the common people and establish working relations with the PTI and other opposition parties.
The political edifice headed by Nawaz Sharif has completed another year. Its political survival in 2017 depends on its capacity to pursue a stable relationship with the opposition, the military and the judiciary. Can the PML-N push the Panama and the news item issues to oblivion and sustain its monopoly in Punjab?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2016.