The climactic moment of the political opera may yet be around the bend. The situation is fluid. It always is. Has been. Will be?
1. Nawaz Sharif may swing back into the party presidential saddle after the passage of the electoral bill removing the line that barred disqualified persons from holding party office. The opposition realised too late what they had let slip by. Slip by? In case you thought legislators actually read what they voted on — well now you know. This irony is lost on the likes of Imran Khan who has tweeted his dismay at the development. He should be more dismayed at the acute incompetence of his legislators.
2. If no more legal hurdles block his way and Nawaz Sharif does climb back into the saddle, at least one major problem staring PML-N in the face will be resolved: the immediate crisis of leadership. How will this play out? With him in control of the party, the electoral strategy for the crucial 2018 elections will flow through his will. And so will the selection of candidates and the award of tickets. The campaign? Well as party president he will have the choice to lead it himself, or personally craft the strategy while his chosen person leads from the front. In essence, Nawaz Sharif will be back.
3. But will he actually be back? Let’s take stock of two parallel developments. For him to be back, he will need to be back — literally. Yes, this means flying back from London to Lahore and landing straight into the arms of the Accountability Court. This is probably the decision he and his party are mulling over in London today. If he decides to pick the return option, it may be based on the following reasons: a) To be truly effective as a party president he will need to be in Lahore till the election and not in London; b) by facing the trial he will rubbish all talk of a “deal” with the establishment and deprive the opposition of the opportunity to paint him as an absconder from the law who does not have the courage to face a lawfully constituted trial.
4. And if he opts to stay in London? He will be a leader in exile once again and as the legally appointed president will continue to micromanage party affairs like he did a decade ago. And yet this time there is a difference: there is no military ruler to legitimise his exile; there is his own prime minister in Islamabad and chief minister in Punjab. Self-exile somehow doesn’t carry the political weight that forced-exile does. The trial will not proceed in his absence but his warrants will be issued and he will be declared a proclaimed offender — not a nice title for a thrice-elected premier. And perhaps most crucially he will need someone to lead the party on the ground and be the nominated prime minister if the PML-N wins the next elections.
5. Here’s where things get complicated. “Successor One” Maryam Nawaz Sharif is embroiled in her own legal woes. So is “Successor Two” Shahbaz Sharif. If Successor One returns from London she will need to face the Accountability Court trial and possible jail if convicted. While some may argue that the political optics of such an eventuality could burnish her credentials as a leader, others might consider this too risky a proposition and advise against her plunging into the legal quicksand. However if she opts to stay in London she will for all practical purposes be out of the leadership race for now at least. Successor Two faces the Hudaibiya case, as well as the Model Town killings case, with grave legal consequences if these cases go south. He can fight out his legal woes here while running the risk of being legally knocked out like his elder brother. Among the two successors whoever returns to Pakistan would likely be the anointed one. If both return, then whoever survives the legal battle will live to lead the party in the next elections.
6. And yet this does not factor in the inter-family conflict that is playing out in the backdrop of the intra-party conflict. In both cases the combatants are beating their drums but none has drawn first blood so far. As long as one Sharif or the other is at the helm, the ‘N’ in the ‘PML-N’ will stay. If the Sharifs however are knocked out, hounded out or ‘dealt out’, the party — or whatever remains of it after the expected desertions — will coalesce around someone who has the credentials to steer the PML without the ‘N’ to safer shores and anchor it in predictable, mainstream and non-turbulent waters. Who would this someone be?
7. And more importantly does a PML without ‘N’ stand a chance against PTI in the next elections? Minus the Sharif brand, what is there in the party that can command a national vote bank? Or, at least in Punjab? The party led by Sharifs in exile and an appointed leader on the ground can still compete with a resurgent PTI, but if the Sharifs are engineered out of the system, the PML will either splinter or get routed at the polls.
8. At stake is also the credibility of a system that still believes some political engineering is necessary to set Pakistan on the path of progress. Really? According to whose definition? And what definition? In the absence of a broad consensus on the direction that politics should evolve, institutions are as confused as the electorate. Power without accountability is a curse that few can live down without experiencing its devastating consequences.
9. In these abnormally turbulent times clarity about the long-term progress of Pakistan is once again muddied in the whirlpool of institutional and personal clashes which have become a detriment to building a consensus on what we as a nation really want.
10. Can we just hope one day to become a normal country with normal challenges to be dealt with normal people who want nothing more than to bring Pakistan up to the level of normal countries who let their people decide in normal ways what is the best way to live normal, happy lives within their borders?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2017.
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