Dangerous Brinkmanship

By: Amir Zia
Published: October 20, 2017
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Nawaz Sharif is out of the Prime Minister House, but the dark shadow cast by his politics keeps Pakistan seething in a cauldron of uncertainty. In fact, the Sharif factor has now become the biggest cause of continuing instability, conflict and discord in the land of the pure.

The deepening polarisation in Pakistani politics is not a mere conventional power tussle between rival forces. The crisis is graver and, if not resolved swiftly, threatens the entire system.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has abused and coerced Parliament into rewriting the rules of the game in a bid to whitewash the corruption and crimes of its leader and family, deliberately pitting institution versus institution.

But this is not the first time in our chequered history that a powerful, political dynasty is trying to take on the institutions and seeking to place itself above the law. Sharif, the patriarch of this dynasty, has walked this self-defeating path twice in the past. But the major difference this time around is that the political stalemate has been prolonged. This is hampering the normal functioning of the government, given that neither side has been able to emerge as a clear winner, nor has been successful in breaking the impasse to keep the system working.

De-facto Premier

The Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from holding public office, but the ousted premier continues to keep his grip on power, operating as the de-facto prime minister.

There is no doubt that he has conceded a lot of ground and the Panama papers scandal grossly tarnished his image. Yet in the initial months following his ignominious ousting, Sharif somehow managed to keep the ruling party intact.

There have been voices of dissent and calls for self-criticism within the party by old-guards like Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, the former interior minister, but has far as the optics are concerned the party stays united.

On one hand, this signifies some deft handling of the situation by Sharif and his loyalists. But on the other, it demonstrates that the ‘powers,’ which allegedly want to see the last of him, are either not out for the kill and want the system to continue – at least for now – or feel that they lack the capacity to face the ensuing consequences once they upset the applecart.

    This has provided time and space for Sharif to dig in his heels deeper and launch a counter-offensive in which the judiciary and the army remain the primary targets for allegedly hatching a conspiracy against him.

The PML-N government is bending and changing laws through its Parliamentary majority to benefit Sharif and using executive power to the hilt to control, influence and direct the investigation agencies, in a bid to blunt the judicial process against him on the charges of corruption. He has already been re-elected as the chief of his own faction of the party as a result of an amendment bulldozed in the Parliament, though constitutional experts say that it stands in conflict with the spirit of the constitution which bars a disqualified person from holding any public office. The same yardstick also applied on the political parties and their heads – but not anymore.

Sharif’s objectives

Sharif’s objectives are not just to win back lost space, redeem his name and restore honour, but to weaken the institutions he thinks are responsible for his fall from grace and dismissal from the halls of power.

Clearly, this goal cannot be achieved without weakening and defeating these institutions by hook or by crook. This primary objective is also shared by the traditional anti-army forces within the country, as well as hostile regional and foreign powers, with India leading the pack. Should there be any doubt about the covert and overt support of these domestic and foreign forces for Sharif to move towards this goal?

Sharif and his camp followers, who have a bitter history of confrontation with institutions, see the army as the main obstacle in the implementation of their design of building ties with India at the cost of the core Kashmir dispute. They also realise that these very institutions – the judiciary and the army – stand between them and the attainment of their goal of establishing dynastic rule in the garb of democracy.

Pakistan’s dysfunctional and skewed parliamentary system allows them to strive for this goal by manipulating and dominating the politics of just one province – the heavily populated Punjab – where the Sharif dynasty has solidly entrenched itself, especially in central Punjab.

No wonder then, that the PML-N’s anti-army tirade not just echoes the charges made by local and foreign anti-Pakistan forces, but also seems to be in tandem with them, as they all try to build a narrative that holds Pakistani institutions responsible for fanning regional and global terrorism. They also accuse the army of preventing Pakistan from cooperating and building ties with India and Afghanistan.

This explains why the erstwhile Sharif government did not fight Pakistan’s case at international forums when he was the prime minister. And after his ouster, Pakistan’s first foreign minister in four years – Khawaja Asif – presented a point-of-view that is basically an acknowledgment of the charges levelled by the hostile powers.

The foreign minister’s statement that Pakistan needs to put its house in order is in stark contrast to the policy articulated by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Sept 6 – Pakistan Defence Day – in which he asked the world to do more in counter-terrorism efforts. General Bajwa also stated that world powers should not blame Pakistan for their policy failures in Afghanistan.

Impact of brinkmanship    Despite all the short-comings, weaknesses, flaws and the anti-people character of the current elected order, so far there is a broad institutional and political consensus that it should be allowed to continue.

The armed forces want to stay away from directly interfering in politics and are operating on the premise that the democracy will self-correct over time and deliver on its promise to improve the lives of the people and stabilise the country’s internal and external security issues.

However, while State institutions support the continuity of the system, there are certain red lines and core national interests, which are uncompromisingly guarded. This includes the country’s stance on the protracted Kashmir dispute, its nuclear programme – vital for the country’s overall security – and ensuring the unity of the state. On all these fronts, the Pakistan Armed Forces remain the lynchpin of the national security paradigm.

However, while State institutions support the continuity of the system, there are certain red lines and core national interests, which are uncompromisingly guarded

As Sharif and his followers up the ante against institutions in tandem with the hostile foreign and local powers, the institutional leadership, which has hitherto maintained a stance of neutrality throughout the turbulent days around the Panama Papers investigation and judicial proceedings, as well as during the prolonged opposition sit-in and protests during 2014, would be forced to take a position.

The expectations of the masses in times of crisis, especially from the Armed Forces and the institutional pressure from within, may force their leadership to act to end the continuing instability and protracted stalemate.

While many analysts and political players believe that Sharif himself wants to push the institutions to take this extreme step so that he can become a ‘political martyr,’ the former prime minister seems to be aware of the fact that the military leadership – since the tenures of General (Retd) Pervez Ashfaque Kayani to that of General (Retd) Raheel Sharif – the most popular army chiefs in Pakistan’s recent history – to the current General Bajwa, have been loyal in their pledge of upholding the Constitution.

Similarly, the judiciary has also come a long way from the activist days of former Chief Justice (Retd) Iftikhar Chaudhary and is acting with extreme caution and restraint, as evident from its handling of the Panama Papers case, in which the Sharif family was provided every possible chance to clear their names.

That is the reason Sharif is attacking the judiciary and the army at will, without any fear of retaliation. But the internal policy of institutional restraint has already been tested to its limits. When push comes to shove, institutions would be forced to act – albeit reluctantly – in the larger national interest. This, of course, is not their preferred choice, nor is it the desire of the political players sitting on the government or opposition benches, other than the flailing Nawaz Sharif and his inner coterie. The applecart will only be disturbed when no other option is left on the table, but the time for a solution is running out fast given Sharif’s brinkmanship and politics of confrontation.

 Warding off the crisis

In their own interest, PML-N stalwarts, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, must distance themselves from Sharif’s confrontational policies and help the Accountability Courts hold his free, fair and transparent trial.

Attempts by the PML-N government to enact personality-specific laws – as was done to make Sharif the head of PML-N again – will only intensify the conflict and force political and institutional players to act aggressively and with greater determination.

Sharif has been disqualified on legal grounds by the apex court. The institutions have shown that they are only interested in reforms and holding the corrupt accountable rather than wrapping up the system. And of course, they won’t allow Sharif back in the saddle, after a short span, given his involvement in corruption and a mindset fixated on confrontation and settling scores.

Sharif can only return to the political arena if he manages to knock down, damage and defeat the institutions with support from like-minded local and foreign players. That cannot happen without harming Pakistan.

Will all PML-N leaders, as well as the rank and file of the party, collaborate in the mission to ‘destroy Pakistan?’ This is the one thing that one does not expect from a centre-right party like the PML-N.

 Sharif can only return to the political arena if he manages to knock down, damage and defeat the institutions with support from like-minded local and foreign players

The greater onus of saving the system lies with the PML-N leadership which has to act minus the Sharifs. This is the only way to ensure the continuity of the system and ensure improvement through reforms.

The institutions will only take the extreme step if they are forced to the edge by the provocative policies and statements emanating from Sharif and his bandwagon. Will the ruling party be able to shed the millstone dragging the system down? So far, Sharif seems to be having his way by putting the entire system at stake as the PML-N stalwarts dance to his tune.

About the Author
Amir Zia
has worked for some of the leading national and internal media organizations in a career spanning more than 25 years and is counted among some of the highly regarded professionals of Pakistan’s media industry