After hearing arguments from both sides the Supreme Court has chosen to reserve its judgment in the Panama Papers case, and it is still not clear if Nawaz Sharif will be disqualified from holding office as a result of the allegations of money laundering, tax evasion, and misappropriation of public funds that have been levelled against him. However, whatever the outcome of the case, it is heartening to see that both the PML-N and the Opposition parties have come out and declared that they will accept the verdict of the court. Perhaps more importantly, the Opposition parties have also announced that they will not push for the dissolution of the PML-N’s government should the Prime Minister be removed from office, allowing it to complete its term in the interests of maintaining the continuity of the democratic process.

In this context – where the disqualification of the Prime Minister remains a possibility but the holding of early elections appears unlikely – it would be interesting to consider the fallout the Panama Papers case will have on Pakistan’s main political parties, and its likely effect on the general elections scheduled for next year. It is also worth bearing in mind the parliamentary committee for electoral reform set up in 2014 is now finally preparing to table a bill in the National Assembly that aims to make elections in Pakistan freer and fairer. The draft prepared by the Committee (which has been put up on the National Assembly’s website) makes several important recommendations, such as granting the Election Commission greater control over the bureaucracy while also limiting the role played by the Caretaker government, and while there is still considerable scope for improvement, the passage of Election Reforms Bill may throw up interesting new opportunities and constraints for parties competing against each other in a post-Panama dispensation.

The first possible scenario that merits consideration is one in which Nawaz Sharif manages to avoid disqualification and remain Prime Minister. Whether this happens after he is exonerated by the Supreme Court or in a trial is irrelevant; those who oppose Nawaz Sharif and claim that the Joint Investigation Team’s report has deprived him of the moral authority to rule are unlikely to change their minds if he eventually emerges from this saga relatively unscathed. While continued allegations of corruption and misconduct will continue to dog Nawaz Sharif and his party, particularly if they are accompanied by yet more protests and sit-ins, any outcome in which Sharif remains in power after going through the courts is one that will probably ensure that the PML-N remains a coherent and formidable political entity. Not only will the party be able to capitalise on a narrative of victory while repeatedly pointing out how its leader submitted himself to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, the institutional basis of its power and appeal will remain mostly unchanged.

This last point requires further explanation. Like nearly all of Pakistan’s mainstream parties, the PML-N lacks an effective party machine, relying on a combination of influential local elites and intermediaries to mobilise electoral support. While there are undoubtedly some who might identify with the PML-N on ideological grounds an external observer would be hard-pressed to discern exactly what this ideology is, given how the party, like most of its peers, simply espouses the conservative status quo. Instead, patronage is the glue that holds the party together, with access to the state and its resources acting as the main attraction for the intermediaries who flock to the party’s banner. This is supplemented by populist narratives about development and infrastructure; whatever their flaws may be, and there are many, it would be a mistake to see projects like the Orange Line Train in Lahore as products of stupidity when there are obvious electoral gains to be made by trumpeting such visual symbols of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. Both the provision of patronage and investments in infrastructure require control of the government’s purse-strings, and it is here that the PML-N has truly been able to consolidate the advantages that accrue from incumbency; in addition to using its decade of power in Punjab to reshape the police and bureaucracy in its own image, the PML-N has presided over a legislative agenda that has provided the provincial government with a tremendous amount of leverage over individual politicians and local governments. Put more simply, in the absence of any credible political rivals, the PML-N’s tight control over the levers of government, particularly in Punjab, provides it with the means through which to ensure the loyalty of its intermediaries, candidates, and leaders, leaving it well-placed to contest the elections of 2018.

The PML-N is not invincible, and it would be possible to defeat the party by, for example, engaging in a long and hard process of mass mobilization that attacked the government not only for its corruption, but also for its incompetence (as evinced by the persistence of the electricity crisis and the rising current account deficit). This, however, would require a strong and widespread party apparatus and at present, there is no party that possesses one that could mount a challenge to the PML-N’s entrenched local elites. This is precisely why the PTI continues to hope for the Prime Minister’s disqualification, single-mindedly pursuing this issue at the expense of broader electoral mobilisation. At one level, this strategy serves as a pragmatic acknowledgment of the scale of the challenge faced by parties like the PTI lacking top-tier electables and confronting an institutional environment designed to favour the incumbent government. However, it also highlights precisely how destabilising Sharif’s departure from the political scene would be for the PML-N.

Much is often made of the lack of internal democracy in Pakistan’s political parties but what is often not acknowledged is the extent to which the unchallenged position of party leaders in the mainstream parties – including the PPP and the PTI – generates stability. This is not necessarily a good thing, given how internal democracy can strengthen political parties in a number of ways, but what it does do is contain some of the opportunistic and factionalised jockeying for position that would otherwise accompany uncertainty at the top. While the external political environment is one the currently favours the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif’s removal as Prime Minister would create a vacuum at the top of the party for the first time in almost three decades. That the PML-N is internally factionalised is no secret; as demonstrated by Punjab’s local government elections in 2015, when almost forty percent of the available seats were won by ‘independents’ who belonged to the PML-N but had failed to get party tickets, there are strong internal rivalries, often rooted in local politics, that could provide politicians and intermediaries with the impetus for defection in the future. At present, the PML-N is able to ensure party discipline by controlling the flow of patronage. Should the party split at the top, creating rival factions from the office of the Prime Minister all the way down to the lowest levels of the party, the patronage-based consensus holding the party together will give way to partisan discord. In a context where Nawaz Sharif is removed from office and the PML-N is tarred with accusations of corruption, and at a time when a reformed ECP may be able to ensure a more level electoral playing field, it might not be too difficult for a rival party to exploit the deep fissures within the PML-N.