Three developments in quick succession have given a new twist to the political drama that has been unfolding since the ouster of Nawaz Sharif from the post of prime minister by a Supreme Court verdict.
These developments are the PML-N’s victory in the NA 120 polls; the passage of the Election Bill 2017 by the Senate removing the legal bar on a person to serve as an office-bearer of a political party if he is not qualified to be, or disqualified from being, elected as a member of parliament; and now the sudden return of Nawaz Sharif to face cases pending before NAB.
The NA 120 by-election results were no surprise. The seat has been a Sharif family preserve for the last 35 years but this time around the fight was tough against the PTI. The PML-N won but by a narrower margin. The party polled 30,000 fewer votes as compared to 2013, indicating a dip in its political fortunes. Soon after, Nawaz Sharif left for London to look after his ailing wife, sparking rumours that he would not return to face NAB cases. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar following suit lent further credence to the rumours.
At the same time, over the past week speculation has been rife in the media about a growing split in the party with special reference to the rebellious statements by Ch. Nisar Ali Khan who has been openly criticizing the party policy of confrontation with State institutions. Ch. Nisar has been particularly hard on Foreign Minister Kh. Asif who is supposed to lead the hawkish elements in the PML-N who have been overtly and covertly attacking the judiciary and the army.
All leading lights of the party huddled together recently in London to discuss what line to take in the face of growing pressure from NAB to face corruption cases. According to media reports, the dominant view in the meeting, which was also attended by prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was that Nawaz Sharif should stay put in London and let things cool down back home. But Maryam Nawaz was said to be in favour of a more pro-active approach and putting up a power show.
In the midst of all this came the Election Bill 2017, which was passed with a majority vote by the Senate, paving the way for Nawaz Sharif to resume the leadership of his party of which he was deprived by the apex court decision to disqualify him under Article 62, 63 of the constitution. Interestingly, the bill was passed with the help of two opposition parties — the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Balochistan National Party-Mengal — which did not support the opposition during the voting process. Since the bill, already passed by the National Assembly, has been passed with amendments by the Upper House, it will go to the NA again and, in all probability, the lower house of parliament will approve it.
This forms the background to the sudden decision of Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan. The message is clear: the Sharifs have decided on a course of confrontation and will go to any length to retain their hold on power. Nawaz Sharif and his party men are on record as having openly said many times that the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Panama case is a negation of the electoral mandate and they will reverse it through the electoral process.
PML-N’s overarching objective seems to be to win the next elections coming up in 2018 and restore Nawaz Sharif to the pedestal of power. But this is easier said than done. This course of action will require amendments in the constitution aimed at subverting the judicial process and undermining the powers of other institutions of the State. For this, the party will have to seek the support of other political groups which it may not get.
There are clear indications that PML-N may not get the two-thirds majority of seats it is seeking in the next elections to fructify its plans for its supremo. The Panama scandal has adversely affected the party’s standing in the public eye, while on the other hand the PTI continues to broaden its base of public support.
PML-N’s confrontational politics may also go awry if NAB proceeds apace and Nawaz Sharif is convicted in the Hudaibia Paper Mills reference. Then there is the Model Town firing case in which Shahbaz Sharif is implicated. In any case, Nawaz Sharif looks determined to play power politics which has its own dynamics. A slight mistake can land the player in serious trouble.