Ever since former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court on July 28, following investigations into the Panama Papers scandal, the narrative of the ruling party has been that it was the all-powerful military establishment that was behind the ‘judicial coup’.

The opinion that the Army has, at least in some part, influenced Nawaz Sharif’s ouster isn’t restricted to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). And events following Nawaz’s dismissal have further given credence to that claim.

In the by-election to elect a National Assembly member on the seat vacated by Nawaz Sharif, two radical Islamist parties won 11% of the overall vote to finish above the likes of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and even fellow religionist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

The Tehrik Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) that finished third in the September 17 by-poll with 7,130 votes is founded in reverence for Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer over blasphemy allegations, and now boasts of a growing militant wing as well.

The Milli Muslim League (MML), an offshoot of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a proscribed group that is affiliated with the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, finished fourth in the by-poll despite only being five weeks old at the time. The group, like its parent organisations, is headed by Hafiz Saeed, who has been under house arrest since January this year.

The mainstreaming of these radical Islamist parties, despite their loud affiliations to individuals and groups sanctioned as terrorists by the Pakistani state, serves two clear purposes for the establishment.

First, the sectarian affiliations of TLY (Barelvi) and MML (Ahl-e-Hadees) means that ideological bait for voters that have historically chosen the PML-N as the religious alternative to PPP, would dent the ruling party’s vote bank – as it did in NA-120 – in next year’s general elections.

Secondly, and more importantly, legitimising these jihadist elements has long been an end itself for the Pakistan Army, a reality that spiralled into public – and world – knowledge through last year’s Dawn Leaks, wherein the civil and military leaders resoundingly disagreed over the future of militant groups, in turn instigating a power standoff which is believed to have led to establishment’s involvement in Nawaz’s exit.

Even so, while the former PM’s dismissal was supposed to initiate a turnaround in the ruling party’s stance, if not its political fortunes altogether, the PML-N has rebounded with even more venom.

In the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy, which singled out Pakistan for scathing critique, the Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa asked the world to ‘do more’ on the counter-terror front instead.

However, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that Pakistan should be focusing on putting ‘its own house in order’, echoing Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, who named the likes of Haqqani Network and Jaish-e-Muhammad – whose mention in the BRICS declaration earlier in September had been interpreted as an attack on Pakistan – as problems that would take time to resolve. Asif even said that Nawaz had ‘paid the price of trying to improve ties with India’; implying Army had taken the ex-PM out since the institution’s interests were at stake.

Last week, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal called out the ‘state within state’ after Rangers personnel – designated at Nawaz Sharif’s hearing without written approval from civilian authorities – had stopped him from entering an accountability court. In reply, the Director General Inter Services Public Relations Maj Gen Asim Ghafoor on Thursday told the media that the Rangers had been deployed following a security threat.

In a detailed press conference, where Maj Gen Ghafoor delineated the gaping hole that civil-military divide has metamorphosed into, all the while downplaying it – even going as far as brining up martial law, ‘which is out of question’ – the DG ISPR maintained that the Rangers protocols have been the ‘same since 2014’.

Of course, before Ahsan Iqbal, the Interior Minister was Chaudhry Nisar who was notorious for his softness towards both military and militants. Nisar recently lambasted both the PM and the foreign minister was looking inwards, and has now been reduced in the periphery of the PML-N, despite his three-decade affiliation with the party.

Meanwhile, last Monday the government passed the Electoral Reforms Bill 2017 to ensure that Nawaz Sharif could be re-elected as PML-N President on Tuesday, despite being disqualified from holding public office.

While in his press conference Maj Gen Ghafoor admitted that the plan to mainstream militant-linked groups is underway.

It is evident that instead of going on the back foot, the ruling PML-N has gone gung-ho in its own show of strength through an electoral win, and now a legal amendment dedicated to bringing their own ousted leader at the helm of the party in complete defiance of the Supreme Court, all the while underlining the Army as the actual antagonist.

But with a law being passed just to ensure a judicially disqualified civilian leader becomes the ruling party’s president, and the representative of the Army nonchalantly mentioning martial law with complete lack of remorse with regards to his institution’s history and failing to explain its current overreach, it is evident that the actual casualty in the power play is democracy and rule of law that both groups claim to uphold.

It is evident that the civil-military tussle has reached its breaking point. But with a hard coup out of menu, the end game is the 2018 elections and whether the PML-N can maintain its electoral authority, or if the security establishment further clips the civilian wings.