ISLAMABAD: The year 2017 turned out to be one of the most challenging ones in the history of the current ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League, which witnessed a series of unfortunate events that brought the N-League, its leadership, and government into the spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons.
The dramatic twists and turns kept reshaping the already uncertain pattern of Pakistani politics and marked them with chaos. From the Supreme Court’s decision to hear afresh the Panama Papers case, the formation of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in the high profile mega corruption case, to the disqualification of Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif in a landmark court judgment, to Sharif found new animosity with state institutions. There were also reports of yet another National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) following the ex-premier and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister (CM) Shehbaz Sharif’s recent visits to Saudi Arabia.
The news of internal rifts within the PML-N appeared serious enough to suggest an emergence of split factions in the ruling camp, including a ‘Shehbaz League.’ The government-military tiff in connection with Dawn Leaks controversy, and their contentious move to change the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat avowal clause in the previous Election Bill 2017, ending with the Faizabad debacle, simply added to the plight of the ruling lot. PM’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi and Principal Information Officer Rao Tehseen lost their official portfolios in the light of the Dawn Leaks inquiry report recommendations. Following this, the matter was ‘settled’. Last year, in connection with the same Dawn Leaks saga, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid had to step down as well.
The year began with the Supreme Court deciding to hear afresh the Panama Papers case, after Chief Justice of Pakistan, Anwar Zaheer Jamali retired in December 2016. Opposition parties like Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Jama’at-e-Islami (JI) were parties to the case and members of Sharif family including the ex-PM, his sons Hassan Nawaz, Hussain Nawaz, daughter Maryam Nawaz, son-in-law Captain Safdar, ex-Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and others were the defendants.
After months of proceedings that saw an exchange of accusations mainly between the PML-N and its arch political foe PTI in particular, the top court decided to form a six-member JIT to dig deeper into the corruption scandal. The JIT comprised of members of Federal Investigation Agency, State Bank of Pakistan, National Accountability Bureau, Securities Exchange Commission of Pakistan, Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence. Amidst the rumours that the JIT members would be ‘managed’ easily by the government—with distribution of sweets, joy and jubilation in PML-N camp over the decision— the JIT began its work.
The events that followed since proved to be a nightmare for the Sharif family, especially the former PM, Nawaz Sharif and his party. In July, the JIT submitted its damning report to the Supreme Court that categorically placed blame on the Sharif family for foul play in the Panama Papers case. It accused Sharif of being the beneficiary owner of offshore companies, a concealment of facts, drawing a salary from his son’s company and not declaring it, possessing a work permit (iqama), and other serious accusations.
On July 28, a five-member bench handed an outright disqualification to Sharif barring him from holding any public office. Resultantly, Sharif lost premiership and his National Assembly seat. In consequence of the court ruling, he also lost the president-ship of his party.
Thereafter, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the then Petroleum Minister, was elevated as Prime Minister on August 1 on ‘interim’ basis. Later, the PML-N Central Working Committee (CWC) decided that Shehbaz Sharif would actually be the ‘permanent’ PM till the completion of PML-N’s tenure while Abbasi would be brought in as PM as a stopgap arrangement until Shehbaz got elected to NA to become eligible for the premiership.
In the meanwhile, the disqualified premier launched a public mobilisation campaign under the theme ‘Mujhe kyun nikala’ (why was I dismissed) to question the rationale behind his ouster— and target the judiciary as well as the security brass. This attracted enormous criticism towards the ex-PM who became a laughing stock on social media. Sharif also took to GT Road to take out a public rally from Islamabad to Lahore in a show of his popularity with the public. While PML-N claimed that the rally was a success, critics questioned this saying the event was marked with low public attendance as well as his party convoy causing the death of a child.
Another twist to this story came when Maryam Nawaz stepped up to lead her mother, Kulsoom Nawaz’s election campaign for NA-120, a lower house’s seat in Lahore that was vacated following Sharif’s disqualification. Kulsoom was diagnosed with a lymph node related cancer and was flown to London for treatment where she is still being cared for.
After announcing Shehbaz to be the next PM, the PML-N chief had a change of heart amidst reports that Kulsoom and Maryam were opposed to this decision. Sharif finally arrived at the conclusion to allow Abbasi to continue as Premier till the completion of this government’s tenure. This is said to have not gone down well with Shehbaz and his aides. Rumours of a silent emergence of Shehbaz League and other dissident factions started doing the rounds. So serious became the internal tussle that Sharif had to postpone his scheduled return to Lahore from London more than once, reportedly, to avoid meeting Shehbaz.
Later, controversy arose over the Election Bill 2017 as it was pushed through Parliament. The same bill, which has now become an act, allowed a person to head a political party that was otherwise disqualified by a court of law from holding public office—thus paving way for Sharif to be back at the helm of party’s affairs as President. The PTI has challenged this in the top court.
In the same bill, the government changed the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat declaration avowal which earned mega public and political backlash. The treasury benches had to retreat in Parliament and the declaration was restored back to its original form. Further legislation was also carried out to categorically clarify the status of Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The PML-N chief also formed a three-member committee led by Chairman PML-N, Raja Zafarul Haq, to probe the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat clause change controversy. But the damage had already been done. Tehreek-e-Labbaik, led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, staged a sit-in at Faizabad, demanding the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, for the controversy. The sit-in continued for more than three weeks and ended up in a botched operation at Faizabad, in which law enforcement agencies had to retreat. The operation was launched on the order of Islamabad High Court.
The countrywide protests then started erupting before the law minister resigned to stop the situation from aggravating further. Still, protests and sit-ins were organised in Lahore by a breakaway faction of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, this time seeking the resignation of provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah for making ‘pro-Ahmadi’ remarks. Hameeduddin Sialvi, a Sargodha-based cleric, also joined these demands seeking Sanaullah’s resignation. Some PML-N lawmakers of the provincial assembly, who are his followers, have resigned in protest against non-resignation of Sanaullah. Sialvi and other Barelvi groups gave the provincial government the deadline of December 31 and warned of another spate of agitation after the deadline’s expiry.
In another significant development, the surfacing of Justice Baqir Najafi’s inquiry report into the Model Town carnage did not absolve the CM and law minister Punjab of responsibility. Pakistan Awami Tehreek, PPP and PTI all shared the unanimous view to demand Shehbaz and Sanaullah’s resignation by December 31.
The PPP’s newly-found hostility with PML-N has also influenced Pakistan’s politics. In his post-disqualification period, ex-PM Sharif is said to have made several attempts to reach out to PPP supremo, Asif Ali Zardari, only to receive a cold shoulder. This can best be explained in the context of PPP’s efforts to mend fences with the security establishment— and the PPP does not want to give a ‘wrong’ impression to the powers that be, by hobnobbing with N-League. Lately, Zardari has toughened his stance against the Sharif brothers, saying their political career is over.
Till a few days ago, reports of an underhand deal between the PML-N and the PPP did rounds suggesting that PPP had linked its support to constituencies’ delimitation legislation with N-League’s assurances to help Zardari’s party secure some seats in the Senate and National Assembly from Punjab in the respective polls. After several weeks of stalemate, the said bill was finally passed by Parliament. Both the PML-N and PPP deny having reached any such deal. The government and the opposition have also locked in on the government backtracking on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) reforms, and its reluctance to introduce the related bill in the NA. The government circles claim the demand for public and political circles to merge FATA with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and implement other FATA reforms will be met and the related bill would soon be tabled in NA.
Despite passing through a lot of turbulence, PML-N was provided with some relief recently. Hardly a few days after the Supreme Court reopened the Hudaibya Paper Mills case, the case was closed on technical grounds. The reopening of the case was said to have brought the Sharif brothers an inch closer and bury the hatchet. Both were said to have decided to face the cases with cooperation and unity. However, the closure of the case raised concerns among certain ‘pro-Nawaz’ circles that Shehbaz was given relief at the cost of weakening his elder brother. But after this episode, Sharif has now announced that Shehbaz will be the ‘next PM’ after general elections. Many in the party doubt Sharif’s intentions, saying the statement simply aims at avoiding a further split within the party, and to appease the PML-N’s powerful Punjab chapter led by Shehbaz. Whether the PML-N will be able to form a government at the centre after 2018 general elections comes with serious doubts.