October 29, 2023
Nawaz Sharif has ended his second exile. He is back to “blow a new life” into his eponymous faction of Pakistan Muslim League. His party has been struggling to rally support after its brief but disastrous stint in power together with its cohorts in Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).
The PDM ousted the PTI’s government through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022 to “avert an economic collapse”, but ended up pushing the country to the brink of “economic default”. The foreign exchange reserves touched rock bottom, inflation broke all previous records, the rupee shed more than 60% of its value against the US dollar. All this happened within 15 months, dwarfing the “economic mismanagement” of their predecessors.
The PTI was riding the sympathy crest generated by its successful peddling of “foreign conspiracy narrative”. The disappointing economic performance of PDM turned out to be a godsend. The Sharifs’ party, being the face of the PDM government, bore the brunt as it lost the “political capital” that Sharif had built with his aggressive narrative. Sharif’s political heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz, made desperate attempts to salvage the party’s sagging popularity – but failed. PML-N’s senior leaders knew that they needed the party patriarch at the helm to campaign for the next elections or else they were doomed.
Sharif’s return was a little tricky – and perilous too. He had been in London since he flew out on humanitarian grounds in 2019 to get treatment for his mysterious illness. At the time, he was serving a jail-term handed to him by a court for corruption. He went abroad for “four weeks” with his brother, Shehbaz Sharif guaranteeing his return. But he prolonged his sojourn, pushing courts to declare him an absconder. Sharif blamed the security establishment for all his miseries, but paradoxically he also owes his political career to some army generals.
He believed the vengeful establishment wanted to punish him for trying a former army chief, Pervez Musharraf, for treason in an unprecedented trail in Pakistan’s history. While in London, Sharif reinvented his politics, became more outspoken, wove a bold anti-establishment narrative, and challenged the high and mighty in Pakistan. This new narrative together with verbal attacks on serving generals won Sharif and his party immense popularity at a time when his political nemesis, Imran Khan, was seen as doing the establishment’s bidding.
In a dramatic turn of events, Imran Khan fell from grace. An opportunity popped up. And the PML-N grabbed it with both hands. The party bartered Sharif’s narrative to become part of “political re-engineering” to unravel the “Project Imran.” Khan was forced out through a controversial vote of no-confidence. The Sharifs and those in league with them said they “sacrificed their political capital” to save the country because the PTI was pushing it into unfathomable abyss.
However, the 15-month PDM rule turned out to be a disaster. It only vindicated Khan who claimed his rivals had teamed up against him because they wanted to get their corruption cases dropped. This was the first thing the PDM government did after coming to power. They defanged NAB by amending the accountability law. And then, they introduced a series of controversial laws with a bewildering rapidity to appease the establishment, making a mockery of parliament and democracy.
The ceding of democratic ground was so brazen that some MPs of the ruling coalition had to admit that “it was the worst parliament” in the country’s history as they “hung their heads in shame” for being its part. The PML-N and PPP voluntarily gave up their lofty Charter of Democracy and willingly became pawns as the chaotic chessboard was being rearranged, believing their political heirs would benefit from the political rejig.
From the very beginning, the PDM was a marriage of convenience – and a divorce was inevitable. No sooner did the government complete its brief tenure, the coalition began to fall apart. The PPP quickly became disillusioned as it realised that the horses have been changed mid-race and that the establishment was betting on the PML-N.
The makeup of the caretaker set-up was tell-all. Most ministers in the interim cabinet remained associated with the Sharif brothers during their governments in the Centre and in Punjab. This called into question the neutrality of the interim setup, triggering a debate on how such caretakers could oversee a credible and transparent election. Soon the demand for a “level-playing field” became the new political buzzword. One PPP leader went so far as to say that “if the decision has already been made to install Sharif as prime minister for a fourth time, then there is no need to squander billions of rupees from taxpayers’ money on elections.”
Sharif’s splashy homecoming lends further credence to a media guessing game that he has cut a deal to realise his dream of becoming prime minister for a record fourth time. He has dialed down his angry rhetoric, gave up his narrative of holding “judges and generals accountable”, and is instead promising to bury the bitter past. Perhaps he has heeded his pragmatic brother’s advice who might have reminded him how confrontation had led to his premature exit from the Prime Minister House three times in the past. A rewards bonanza followed.
Despite being a fugitive from justice, Sharif received a hero’s welcome on his return to Lahore earlier this month. Punjab’s caretaker government suspended his sentence as courts gave him quick bail reliefs in the face of a lenient NAB. This unprecedented “dispensation of justice” at a time when the PTI leaders are being denied any relief whatsoever strengthens the impression that although everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, some are more equal than others.
The caretaker prime minister has promised a level-playing field to all but “arsonists”, a clear reference to the PTI for its alleged vandalism and rioting on May 9, 2023. This means the PTI is out of the race, but the PPP, which is also questioning the level-playing field, has said that a “minus-PTI” election would not be acceptable to anyone. It appears that instead of ensuring a level-playing field, the entire field is being leveled to ensure the victory of a “selected contender”.
But an election that doesn’t look inclusive, credible and transparent would only spawn political instability and social polarisation. We have seen this in 2013 and 2018 that “stage-managed” election haunted the governments they brought into power and cut short their tenures as rivals unleashed street protests, destabilising the country and stymieing economic growth. At a time when Pakistan is facing a perfect storm situation due to the political, security, and economic challenges, the country badly needs political stability and social cohesion. And political stability and social cohesion would come only if the voters are allowed to choose their representatives in a free, fair, and transparent election.
Sharif may have picked “acceptability” over “popularity” for short-term political gains, but this would be highly damaging for his party and his own political legacy. For, the criteria of “acceptability” do not stay the same. Yesterday, Imran Khan enjoyed “acceptability” and Nawaz Sharif was turned into a pariah. Today, the roles have been reversed. Nobody should know this better than Sharif himself.