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Fissures in the political class

The reactions of politicians and the public for and against the Supreme Court verdict on the disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reflect the way the political community is divided down the middle. This is not a good omen for relations between institutions – in this case between the judiciary and parliament – or between rival contenders for power in society.

Those who criticise the verdict find the use of Article 62 dangerous whereby the political class would become a hostage to an extremely vague constitutional provision in terms of its moralist overtones that are susceptible to arbitrary interpretations. Additionally, this provision has an in-built religious bias that kept successive governments from amending it. It is the first time ever that the issue of amending this article has come out in public, thanks to the Supreme Court’s reliance on it for disqualifying Nawaz Sharif.

Similarly, criticism of the judgment has focused on the former prime minister’s position as chairman of his son’s company in Dubai, while he remained unpaid, as the flimsiest ground for disqualification. Some members of the legal fraternity who do not have any party links generally opposed the verdict and found it an example of judicial overreach. This has raised the question on whether the Supreme Court has taken a relatively strong position by way of effecting the regime change on the basis of a somewhat weak legal premises of declaring an organisational office in Dubai not involving actual financial transaction as culpable.

In the aftermath of the court’s decision, the PML-N leadership decided not to go down without a whimper, and to register its political strength on the minds of those who matter in the long run. The journey of the former prime minister from Islamabad to Lahore can be considered a good political strategy in the context of making noise about the perceived injustice. Whether the next step of holding public meetings in the major cities of Punjab, as announced by the PML-N, is a good strategy or not – while elections are supposed to be held in the second half of the next year – remains an open question.

Going for mass contact without an immediate political context is always risky. It involves an enormous organisational and financial cost as well as waste of human energy. The PTI leadership failed to mobilise the nation at large in pursuit of its objectives in the last four years, and finally relied on the judicial route for the dismissal of the prime minister. The latter may not be able to garner political dividends out of a planned series of public meetings with no elections on the horizon. At least formally, Nawaz Sharif’s petition for review has taken the matter from the street back to the court.

The government of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, as a surrogate prime minister parallel to Raja Pervez Ashraf’s government in 2012-13, presents some interesting comparisons. Raja Ashraf’s predecessor Gilani was not the foremost leader in the PPP. That position remained firmly in the hands of the then president Zardari. However, in the case of Abbasi, there is no boss in office after he took over. He has a relatively large space for manoeuvring his way through the maze of the government machinery, even as he functions as the trustee of the PML-N’s political capital.

The size of Abbasi’s cabinet has assumed scandalous proportions, somewhat equal to the one under Shaukat Aziz. This situation is symptomatic of an inherent weakness in the formation of the ruling hierarchy, ie the absence of the magnetic force of the leader at present and the lack of legitimacy of the government under Musharraf. Abbasi’s large cabinet is meant to deliver on two counts: saving the party from disintegration by distributing patronage at a large scale; and putting together an election cabinet that would start working for the next exercise at polls.

Are the NAB references filed against the Sharifs as dangerous, just as their review petition in the Supreme Court is considered foredoomed? The grim scenario of a negative verdict against the ex-PM will create an anomalous situation while a PML-N government is still in office. The quest for a way out can lead to an executive action of some kind of reprieve. Can a presidential pardon be applicable as was exercised by President Ford for Nixon of the Watergate fame?

Delay in the appointment of the new NAB chairman is, therefore, a thorny issue, especially as the current chairman goes abroad on leave. A lot depends on the way  NAB pursues the cases under a new chairman within the stipulated time of six months. If it gives a priority to this case over other cases already in the pipeline, will that mean selective justice? Will the PML-N project that as discriminatory? Already, the Sharifs have decided not to appear in front of NAB. Will plea bargain or any other kind of settlement of a corruption case be available to the Sharifs, as has been the case with several other persons? Or, will the NAB cases turn out to be a Waterloo for the Sharif dynasty?

The PML-N feels obliged to seek the support of other parties, or at least establish working relations with them. Currently, PPP leader Asif Zardari presides over an increasingly negative campaign of his party against the PML-N leader for various acts of omission and commission in the past. While the PPP leader has publically washed his hands off from cooperation with the besieged PML-N leader, there is a possibility that the two parties come to some sort of arrangement on issues such as the appointment of a NAB chairman, passage of a constitutional amendment to delete the arbitrary changes in Articles 62 and 63 brought about by Ziaul Haq and put in place a caretaker government for holding elections in 2018.

For the PPP, the real struggle is taking back the political initiative from the PTI. The latter has made the PPP irrelevant for politics in the country outside Sindh and the party needs to win back the second position for itself in Punjab, commensurate with its role as parliamentary opposition leader. While the PPP’s public rhetoric is against the PML-N, the doors of negotiations and even bargaining over seats in Punjab are not closed. The ruling party’s allocation of Rs25 billion for Karachi is a clear sign of checkmating the PPP in its heartland by boosting up the MQM-Pakistan, the latter’s arch-nemesis, in the capital of Sindh.

For the present, all is quiet on the front of the Imran Khan-Ayesha Gulalai controversy. The Election Commission has given a final date to the PTI for filing its funding schedule. Has Imran Khan run into deep trouble by losing the high moral ground that he had cultivated for himself during recent years? Desperation is running high in the party after its ‘pyrrhic’ victory over the PML-N through the Supreme Court verdict.

Politics in Pakistan continues to move in circles. Policy is dead as a deciding factor in politics. The court has effectively replaced parliament as the chief arbiter of conflict. The question is: can the treasury and opposition benches bring the political initiative back to parliament?

Mohammad Waseem, "Fissures in the political class," The news. 2017-08-20.
Keywords: Political science , Prime Minister , Political issue , Political community , Opposition parties , Supreme court , Political strategy , Political context , Judicial system , Government machinery , Constitutional amendment , Leadership , PTI , PML-N , PPP