The fast-changing dynamics of Pakistani politics

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By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
In March, Pakistan’s domestic politics is expected to experience a number of important developments that will have far-reaching implications. Next month may prove to be decisive in determining the political role of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), and how much clout state institutions will exercise in governance.
Half of the members of the upper house of Pakistan’s Parliament, the Senate (52 out of 104), will be elected in the first week of March. All provinces have equal representation in the Senate, and each provincial assembly elects the allocated quota of members. In addition, four members are elected by 12 National Assembly members from the tribal areas, and federal capital members are elected by the National Assembly as a whole. There are unconfirmed reports of the use of money to obtain votes. The PMLN is expected to emerge as the single largest party in the Senate, but the elections will not put an end to the PMLN’s political difficulties.
Two important court judgments are expected to be announced before mid-March, and they will have a direct impact on the party’s political dynamics, and its chief Nawaz Sharif and his family. The PMLN managed to get a law passed by Parliament to let Sharif serve as party chief, despite his disqualification as prime minister and National Assembly member. The Supreme Court bench is expected to announce its judgment soon on the validity of this new law.
The other case that is expected to be decided before mid-March is before the Accountability Court, addressing corruption and money-laundering charges against Sharif, his two sons, his daughter and her husband.
If one or both judgments go against the Sharif family, it will create a leadership crisis in the PMLN, and will block the political career of Sharif and his ambitious daughter Maryam, at least for the time being. This will likely cause a conflict within the party over succession. In case the judgments go Sharif’s way, his leadership will be reaffirmed, but the confrontation between the PMLN and opposition parties will intensify.
Currently, the PMLN – and especially Sharif and his daughter – has launched a massive propaganda campaign against the superior judiciary and the military, alleging a conspiracy by these state institutions to oust him from politics. This has soured relations between the party and the institutions, especially the superior judiciary. The Supreme Court imprisoned a Sharif loyalist for contempt of court, and issued such a notice to two other loyalists. But the court has shown a lot of patience toward the negative statements of Sharif and his daughter. It seems the court wants to await the Accountability Court judgment in the family’s money-laundering case.
The campaign against the two state institutions has strengthened Sharif’s position in the PMLN and galvanized party activists, who would be willing to engage in protests if the leadership asked them to. Another dilemma pertains to the question of implementation of a judgment that convicts Sharif and his family by the PMLN government at the federal level and in Punjab.
The party may decide to challenge an adverse court judgment by resorting to street protests. If the government does not control them, opposition parties are expected to challenge it. The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan has already shown its intention to counter such agitation. The growing confrontation between the PMLN and the PTI, and the campaign against the superior judiciary and the military, have increased polarization in Pakistani politics. Though the PTI is less strident and suffers from organizational weaknesses, it is maintaining political pressure on the PMLN.
The political polarization and confrontation have diverted the government’s attention from good governance to pursuing the PMLN’s partisan agenda against the superior judiciary and opposition parties, especially the PTI. March will be an eventful month for Pakistani politics and society. The outcome of these political and judicial developments – especially how the PMLN, the superior judiciary and the military deal with one another – will determine the direction of domestic politics, and whether general elections, due in summer, will be held on time.
(Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based political analyst. Twitter: @har132har)