The ousting of Nawaz Sharif in the 1999 military coup was one of Pakistan history’s most visual moments. The photographs are animated, violent, distressing - the kind of images that burn themselves into national memories. Party leaders, hair dishevelled and screaming, dragged from their homes in the middle of the night. Civilians watching amazed, as the infamous 111 brigade scaled the gates of Pakistan state television.

What followed was a systematic exercise in political humiliation, complete with jail-time, torture and exile. And yet, fourteen years later in 2013, the first time Nawaz Sharif returned to contest general elections since the coup, he won.

It was the same thing in 1988. The PPP contested its first election since Bhutto’s execution and General Zia’s aggressive political smear campaign spanning nine years. Wounded and victimised, it won. In 2008, months after the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto which shook the entire country, her party swept into government.

“The sympathy vote is always there. You create mobilisation by playing the victim card which is what Nawaz Sharif would like to do now,” says political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

The minor technicality on which the prime minister was disqualified last Friday gives the PML-N a dubious dignity to cling to at the end of a dirty public trial, and this could go a long way in swaying the floating vote in their favour come election 2018. In this case, the judgement as it occurred, might even be the best worst-case scenario Nawaz Sharif and his stalwarts could never have imagined.

“They were trying to get Nawaz Sharif out of politics, but they’ve actually done the PML-N a huge favour,” says Saira Afzal Tarar, a former minister of state for health in Sharif’s cabinet, and now federal health minister. “Even an illiterate man can hear this judgement and say, ‘Well, this isn’t right’.”

“This is a khush kismati, I am grateful that the ill-intentions of these people against the prime minister will be turned into sympathy for that same leader’s party,” she continues. “We just have to properly communicate this to the grass roots level.”

With an aggressive investigation still mounting into the Sharif family’s assets, and ECP’s bizarre barring of Shehbaz Sharif taking part in his own poll campaign on September 17, the victim narrative could shift undecided voters who might see the relentless offensive by the PTI and the courts as an injustice.

In a press conference the day after his disqualification, the former prime minister made frank appeals to citizens to join him, alluding constantly to the idea that his was, in fact, an honourable departure.

“Just look at the excuse they have used against me. I am overjoyed that I am free of the stain of corruption,” he said.

It is this sense of relief that PML-N leaders will be hoping to convert into votes next year - granted they can hold the public imagination for the next ten months under new Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi.

“I was asking around in different cities. In Pindi, in Lahore, in Multan. There is so much sympathy for the party everywhere. People are responding to our rallies even though we’re not doing it in a structured way,” says Pervaiz Malik, newly instated minister of commerce in Abbasi’s cabinet.

A story that appeared in The Nation on July 30th reported that the Supreme Court judgement and any perceived loss of credibility has not translated into a loss of votes in PML-N core constituencies like NA-120. These voters remain unmoved by the apex court verdict, but the sentiment of undecided voters is up for grabs and depends on how well Nawaz and his party can play the casualty card to inspire rapport.

“Voter polarisation is too sharp. The hardcore votes will remain the same. But the undecided voters, a fraction of the total, will decide which succeeds in the end: PML-N’s victim card or PTI’s corruption card,” says Rizvi.

If history and voting patterns in Pakistan are anything to go by, a win for the democratic victim card is a reasonable possibility.

Hushed at first, growing whispers from within and outside the party are now pointing to the establishment’s underhand involvement in the final Supreme Court judgement, with some quarters going as far as to call it a “judicial coup.”

Though it is doubtful that this line of reasoning will find much proof in the months to come, an emboldened PML-N has perhaps already begun a passive confrontation with the military, evidenced by some of their more controversial cabinet choices such as the return of Mushahid Ullah Khan, earlier dismissed for his criticism of the ISI.

On Thursday, senior human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir gave a scathing criticism of the military’s involvement in politics, and PML-N party leaders say they feel the same way, though there is no physical evidence to prove their claims.

“It’s difficult for them to do a coup. But look at what they are doing in the back-end. The PML-N and PPP now know,” says Tarar. “We (PML-N) should never have gone after Gilani. In 70 years we have learnt nothing. The politicians must unite.”

For now, the party is planning a symbolic weekend return of their former leader to Lahore, and many will watch to see how well Nawaz can keep the narrative of oppression going - sitting atop his moving caravan, the wounded eagle who might yet lead them all to victory.

Amal Khan