Two things are increasingly becoming clear as Pakistan hurtles towards its next general elections. Firstly, the Supreme Court’s decision to bar Nawaz Sharif from heading the PML-N introduces uncertainty about the continuity of the democratic process while also adding fuel to speculation that the Sharifs are being specifically targeted to undermine their party’s electoral chances, and secondly, despite the fallout from the Panama Case, multiple dharnas and rallies held by opposition parties to pillory the government, and the ever-present dangers posed by factionalisation arising out of internal fissures within the party, the PML-N does not yet appear to be headed for electoral implosion this summer.
Explaining these paradoxical observations requires analysis of some of the underlying forces shaping Pakistan’s politics in the current juncture. While it may now be passé for some, representing a throwback to earlier times and ways of thinking, it could be argued that it still makes sense to view Pakistan’s still-ongoing transition to democracy through the lens of the country’s perennially fractious civil-military relations. In this latest instance, the logic that has been espoused by some leaders within the PML-N, as well as some commentators, is reasonably clear; Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N’s travails, going back to the PTI’s dharna in 2014, can be attributed to a calculated attempt by elements within the powerful military establishment to cut the party down to size. Following from this, it is suggested that the Supreme Court’s relentless focus on Sharif represents an extension of the establishment’s strategy, relying on the judiciary to provide quasi-democratic justifications for the changes that are allegedly being engineered.
Support for this view comes from a combination of historical precedent and contemporary insight. It is not secret that the military has often interfered in the democratic process, if not through outright coups then through behind-the-scenes machinations aimed at destabilising and ousting elected regimes. Evidence for this can be found in Pakistan’s tumultuous experience with democracy in the 1990s, when successive governments headed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were prematurely terminated by executive fiat using Zia-era laws designed to keep the power of parliament in check. Then, as now, it was widely believed that such moves were made at the bidding of the military establishment (albeit with support from opportunistic civilian political actors), and many would even argue that if the PPP government that ruled from 2008 to 2013 was able to complete its term, it was in spite of, and not due to the absence of, attempts at disruption (such as, for example, the NRO and Memogate cases, or even the abortive dharna led by Tahir-ul-Qadri on the eve of the 2013 elections).
Matters are not helped by the widespread belief that the grounds upon which the Supreme Court has disqualified Nawaz Sharif from holding public office are shaky at best. The Court’s decision in the Panama Case was criticised for being based upon a relatively small and trivial omission of fact, rather than a broader confirmation of the idea that Sharif and his family are irredeemably corrupt, and legal experts have already started pointing out how the decision taken to bar Sharif from heading the party that bears his name breaks with past precedent on such issues, is premised on a very wide interpretation of the law, raises questions about the jurisdiction and powers of the Court, and could spell introduce new constraints on civilian political activity in the future.
This does not mean that the PML-N and its leaders are innocent of all that they are accused of, nor should it imply that the party and what it represents must be defended at all costs. Some would rightly point out that many of the party’s problems are of its own making, and its record in power, as well as its own cavalier attitude towards important democratic norms, hardly qualify it for the unconditional support of those who believe in strengthening the democratic process.
Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that if the PML-N is to be punished for its failings, this should be done at the ballot box and not through the deployment of strategies of dubious democratic and legal standing. Similarly, if there is a case to be made against Nawaz Sharif and other leaders in his party, it is imperative that it be proven in a robust way in a court of law, and that such accountability not lend itself to the view that it is selective. After all, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to bar Sharif from being the president of the PML-N, it is worth remembering that while the Supreme Court did disqualify him from being Prime Minister, he has yet to be convicted of the charges that have been leveled against him. Then, as now, the more prudent course of action would have been to first establish his guilt before punishing him and his party for his alleged misdeeds. In the absence of this process, it is difficult to endorse the idea that the actions being taken against the PML-N are free from bias.
Which brings us to the second observation made at the start of this column, namely that the PML-N does not appear to have been seriously undermined by the events of the past six months. While the party’s position in the upcoming Senate elections has been seriously jeopardised by the ECP’s decision to invalidate the tickets awarded to its candidates by Nawaz Sharif in his capacity as party president (recommending that they be allowed to contest as independents instead), it’s performance in the NA-154 by-election, as well as its ability to thus far maintain its coherence by sidestepping the knotty issue of who should or should not succeed Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister and party leader, demonstrates that the party remains a viable electoral force (either due to the existence of a loyal support base that endorses its narrative of development and/or victimisation, or even due to its ability to retain leaders, candidates, and voters through the provision of patronage), and indicates that it has not yet become the kind of spent and vilified entity that the PPP had become by 2013.
This raises one final and crucial question; if there are elements in the military establishment, judiciary, and civilian opposition who sought to destabilise the PML-N in support of their own agendas, and if these strategies have not met with the success that was expected, what more can be expected in the months to come? As always, predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but it seems safe to say things are going to get very interesting before votes are finally cast later this year.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.