2018 was Pakistan’s year of living dangerously

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By Adnan Rehmat

EVEN for Pakistan’s chequered standards, the outgoing year has been nothing short of a political rollercoaster ride. What has happened – and is expected to happen as the year nears its end – will definitely have an impact on how the country shapes up. It all began with the end of the political career of one of the country’s most influential politicians – Nawaz Sharif. In March, the Supreme Court not only rejected his appeal to overturn its 2017 ruling to disqualify him from politics for life, but also held that because of this he was ‘certified’ as ‘untrustworthy’, and ‘unreliable’ under the country’s controversial disqualification laws.
Within a span of a few months, Sharif lost out on not only the office of the prime minister or the president of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party but also on any chance that he could run for office again.
This was an inglorious end to an otherwise spectacular career of a politician in Pakistan’s history. Prior to being disqualified, Sharif had twice served as the chief minister of Punjab and thrice as the prime minister – the longest, in accumulative terms, for an individual to occupy these offices.
This would have been remarkable had the matter ended there. However, in July, on the orders of the Supreme Court, an accountability court declared him guilty for money laundering in the first of three ‘corruption’ references, subsequently handing him a 10-year jail sentence. His daughter, Maryam, who was being groomed to be his political successor, was given a seven-year term.
Both Sharif and Maryam stunned everyone in Pakistan by accepting the punishment and refusing to seek an exile as their cut to freedom – something which Sharif had done after being ousted in a military coup in 1999. Instead, the father and daughter duo returned from London, leaving Sharif’s ailing wife and Maryam’s mother, Kulsoom, behind.
They received a rapturous welcome which could not be covered extensively by the media due to a ban imposed by the country’s security establishment. Kulsoom died within a month and a few weeks later, both Sharif and Maryam were released on bail after a high court overturned their conviction. Meanwhile, their trial in the other two cases culminated on December 19, with speculations afloat that they are expected to be declared guilty on December 24 and thrown back in jail.

LAHORE: Dec 24–A Pakistan Peoples Party worker protesting outside Supreme Court Registry with a copy of the Constitution of Pakistan.

Sharif’s misfortune turned into Imran Khan’s fortune in the July 25 general elections. Khan’s party won the highest numbers of seats in three out of five legislatures for which the elections were held, including the National Assembly (NA), Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
However, he fell short of a simple majority in the NA and Punjab Assembly even as the country watched in amazement as his party engaged in open horse trading by wooing independent winners – many of whom had defeated his party’s candidates – to complete the numbers by turning most of them into ministers. He did not get a mandate to rule – the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) got more combined votes than his – but became a ruler nonetheless. This was the first time when neither the PML-N or the PPP was in power for more than a decade.
The election results became hugely controversial after the much-hyped electronic results management system collapsed within hours of vote counting, resulting in allegations of foul play. A parliamentary commission has been formed to investigate the scandal which puts a question mark over the legitimacy of the results.
In the meanwhile, Khan’s government has spectacularly failed in conveying a sense of economic control and political momentum in a charged parliament despite completing his first 100 days in power, thereby failing to convince an increasingly skeptical electorate that it can arrest a slide in governance.
Khan’s underwhelming choice of chief ministers for the two provinces and federal cabinet of ministers – most of whom served under General Musharraf – belie his pre-election promises of change. His government has already created a record of completing the longest period of time without passing any legislation, leaving his reforms agenda paralyzed.
But perhaps the most lasting impact of 2018 has been a tightening grip of the security establishment over the polity – something which is quite evident from the virtually complete electoral annihilation of the leadership of all political parties except Khan’s and PPP’s (although its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, seems to be rapidly inching closer to being jailed on corruption charges).
This would allow it to dictate political, security, and economic agendas. Khan’s party seems like a thinly disguised political proxy to implement a technocratic approach for governing Pakistan. There have been few years as uncertain as the last remaining days of 2018, even as we walk into the next year.
(Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development andscience. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1)