Supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif chant slogans. following the Supreme Court decision to disqualify Sharif from holding office for life, in Islamabad, Pakistan April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood
Supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif chant slogans. following the Supreme Court decision to disqualify Sharif from holding office for life, in Islamabad, Pakistan April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

It is almost as if there is a state of undeclared martial law in Pakistan. Mainstream media organizations are facing restrictions. The country’s most popular television channel, Geo News, is off the air in many areas of the country. Newspapers are rejecting anything written against the deep state.

Other than Geo and the Dawn group, the media houses and TV channels are generally toeing the establishment’s guidelines. The judiciary is virtually running state affairs and has paralyzed the elected government.

The civilian government has been pushed to the edge of an abyss. The establishment is propagating the need for a technocrat set-up to solve the country’s problems through the puppets in the mainstream media. From controlled media to controlled democracy, it is all about the hegemony of the establishment.

Everything was going in favor of the invisible forces (the military establishment) until former prime minister Nawaz Sharif decided to fight back. There were unprecedented and unexpected crowds at his recent public gatherings. Even his critics were surprised to see such massive and energetic crowds.

It seems that the conspiracy to oust Sharif from the political arena has backfired, and he is getting more powerful and popular with each passing day. Sharif’s narrative is liked by the masses, and they are responding positively to it.

“Give respect to my vote!” “Why was Sharif disqualified?” These are the popular slogans, and they are disturbing the shrewd men operating behind the scenes.

They successfully conspired to throw Sharif out of the office of the prime minister of Pakistan, but his defiance and “never say die” attitude completely turned the tables.

If recent surveys pertaining to the next general elections are correct, it is Sharif who is set to win convincingly. This is extraordinary, as the nearly five-year propaganda campaign, with the playing of the ugliest of all cards, religion and threat to national security, has not proved effective in undermining Sharif.

Of course, the forces lined up against him will not sit silently, and it will not be a cakewalk for him to proceed further.

The invisible forces still have some tricks in their arsenal and they will be waiting for the verdicts of corruption cases against Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz in the accountability courts. They can wait for the caretaker set-up to come and then use the law-enforcement agencies to arrest them. After all, an election campaign for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) without Sharif or his daughter Maryam in it will have a negative electoral impact in Punjab.

Arresting Sharif could trigger a massive protest and lawlessness across the country

But arresting Sharif could trigger a massive protest and lawlessness across the country. So this option is not feasible for the invisible forces and Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI) party. The other option is to keep the process of political engineering going and try to dismantle Sharif’s PML-N by getting strong electable political stalwarts to defect from it.

The invisible forces have done this successfully in Balochistan with the help of the Pakistan Peoples Party, whose chairman, Asif Zardari, played an instrumental role in dislodging the PLM-N provincial government and, with the help of the military establishment, completely wiping PML-N out in that province, but whether they will be able to repeat this in Punjab remains highly doubtful. The realities on the ground in Punjab are totally different from Balochistan.

Unlike Balochistan, where the tribal heads (sardars and nawabs) win on their own and do not need any party affiliation in elections, it is almost impossible for even electable candidates in Punjab to win elections without affiliating with an established political party. In the past, the electable candidates sensing the wind’s direction would change their loyalties and felt comfortable aligning with the establishment. It was thought that whomever the military establishment was supporting would win easily.

But the results of the 2013 general elections ended this perception of a guaranteed win by aligning with the invisible forces. Khan’s PTI was fully backed by the invisible forces and many of the electable candidates joined, assuming that the political party backed by the invisible forces would win easily in general elections. However, the results surprised many pundits and politicians. Sharif grabbed almost a two-thirds majority, while the PTI backed by the establishment was not able to win more than 27 National Assembly seats.

It was a setback to the invisible forces, as Sharif at that time was not in a confrontational mood, and neither was he building an anti-establishment narrative. It means that other than the habitually opportunistic politicians changing their loyalties, there is a very slim chance that a major defection from the PML-N will happen.

The opposition, with almost no narrative of its own, is harmless and it will not be effective against Sharif in the elections – if they are actually held as scheduled in July. Probably the invisible forces, unlike in the past, have chosen the wrong pawns. Khan was never a mature politician and he still has not learned this art. He was given the task of conquering Punjab, the strong fort of Sharif, but despite all the backing from the invisible forces and big media houses, he was not able to overcome Sharif’s electoral strength and popularity.

The invisible forces have the power, resources and experience to create heroes and antiheroes. They can topple anyone at any given time, and the recent demise of the PML-N-led provincial government in Balochistan is an example in this regard. Whether they will be able to manage the constituencies and voters of Sharif’s fort in Punjab remains the question.

For Sharif, the masses are buying his narrative, showing him their support, and he is charged up to take on the invisible forces and play the decisive round of the battle. Sharif has nothing to lose right now as he has already been disqualified by a controversial judicial decision, so the chances are that he will emerge as a victor in this battle. In fact, if he somehow is not able to win, he still has created a narrative that will not be defeated in the years to come.

“Give respect to my vote” is the slogan that is echoing everywhere in the country, and this is already a win for Sharif as no one has been able to create such an effective and popular anti-establishment narrative in recent times.

It is not a question of who will win the next general elections anymore. It is only about whether Sharif will be able to contest the next general elections if they are held on time.

If the elections are not delayed as is feared, he will be able to snatch a big win, as right now he is riding the wave of sympathy and enjoying the popularity of his lifetime in Punjab. The only way to stop Sharif from winning is by failing to conduct them on time and by installing a caretaker set-up that can target and victimize PML-N in the name of accountability.

The judiciary is ready to give support to the invisible forces in case it requires any legal cover to delay the general elections. If the military is able to delay the elections, it will surely break the momentum Sharif has gathered for the campaign and it could also give ample time to the establishment to maneuver things in its favor,

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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