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Serious crisis waiting to happen on the eve of 2018 general elections in Pakistan

Zahid Hussain

THE countdown has begun. Just two months are left to the end of the five-year term of the National Assembly, and the ensuing elections may well lead to the second democratic transition from one elected government to another. It would certainly be a milestone in the country’s rocky political journey. Yet it seems as if there are miles to go before we are there.

Cynicism abounds with the gathering storm on the country’s political horizon. While the so-called Bajwa doctrine has provided fresh impetus to the perennial doubters, some other factors too have contributed to this climate of political uncertainty. Judicial overdrive and the National Accountability Bureau’s blitz against politicians and their alleged henchmen in the bureaucracy have also fuelled conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, allegations of foul play in the Senate election raise questions about the fairness of the electoral process. Many see the security establishment behind the defeat of the PML-N candidate for Senate chairman. It could be true but it had also to do with the opportunistic alignment of political forces to keep the PML-N from succeeding in its attempts to return to power.

Indeed, the plot has been successful in preventing the ruling party from taking control of the upper house, but it may not work in the general elections, with no possibility of the PPP and PTI joining hands. There is also a limit to what the establishment can do to influence the course of politics that is getting murkier with so many factors coming into the play. It is an extremely unpredictable situation and no one seems to be in charge.

It is an extremely unpredictable situation and no one seems to be in charge.

More critical, however, is the impending accountability court ruling in the graft cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family. The monitoring Supreme Court judge has extended the deadline for the winding up of the trial in three months. Some perceive that such a delay arises out of concerns that a chaotic situation could develop if the former prime minister is convicted while a PML-N government is still in power, and that it is better if it happens under a non-party interim administration.

Yet it will be hard for any government to deal with a possible backlash triggered by a court ruling against the Sharifs on the eve of the general elections. Indeed, the military has promised full backing to the judiciary, and all the state institutions are bound by the Constitution to get the court order implemented; but given the highly explosive political situation, things do not look that good.

There is no indication yet of Sharif, arguably still the most powerful political leader in the country, shedding his defiance. Although chances of any mass protest is unlikely, it would certainly heighten political tensions, with the possibility of the military getting sucked more deeply into the mire. The generals are already in the driving seat with an increasingly weakened civilian government in place.

Surely, a major challenge for the PML-N would be to maintain unity in the ranks in the event of Sharif’s conviction and a clash with what is described as the military-judiciary nexus. The signs of a divide are quite apparent with Chaudhry Nisar openly challenging his erstwhile leader. The former interior minister may not have been very popular among his party colleagues; nevertheless, he represents the sentiments of many other senior members.

But a conviction may also give the party a victim card to play more effectively in the election campaign. It has, indeed, worked well so far in mobilising the party and the general masses. It is quite evident that Sharif’s popular support has not diminished, if it has not increased. It is a serious challenge to the security establishment to contain the disgraced leader who apparently it will not allow to return to power at any cost.

A serious crisis is waiting to happen on the eve of the general elections the outcome of which is hard to predict. It is an unmanageable chaos that would threaten the entire political edifice. That raises questions about the elections being held on time. The cynics have their reasons to be pessimistic.

It is not just about the fallout of the Sharif trial, the court has also ordered retired Gen Musharraf to return to the country and face trial on sedition charges. Noncompliance by the former military ruler could create a challenging situation for both the judiciary and the administration.

The erstwhile army chief’s trial had been a major source of tension between the former Sharif government and the military. The issue could also place the military leadership in an awkward situation, though Gen Bajwa appeared to indicate that his institution did not have any objection to the trial of the former military ruler.

But it will not be that easy for the military leadership to watch its former chief standing trial for treason. It is a well-known fact that Musharraf had the protection of the then military leadership when he returned to the country ending his self-exile in 2013 when he faced multiple cases including treason charges. It is certainly becoming a messy situation casting its shadow over the coming elections.

Though completely unsubstantiated, there has been speculation about a long-term interim arrangement backed by the military and judiciary. The deteriorating state of the economy is also being used to justify the argument for the postponement of general elections and the installation of a long-term technocratic administrative arrangement. Such suggestions come in handy each time the country faces a political crisis. It is, however, unlikely that any political party would agree to such a proposition that could derail the democratic process.

More importantly, such an arrangement would be an extra-constitutional act without any legal cover. That could pull the the country into a bigger political mess with serious implications for the unity of the federation. It is, indeed, a messy run-up to the elections but they are the only way out.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2018

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