This file photo shows a supporter of Nawaz Sharif holding up his portrait. Pakistan's former PM was today sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption.  Photo: Reuters
This file photo shows a supporter of Nawaz Sharif holding up his portrait. Pakistan's former PM was today sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption. Photo: Reuters

There is growing anxiety in Pakistan’s corridors of power. The famous Panama Papers case verdict is about to be handed down, and the way proceedings are going it is fair to assume that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, will be jailed.

The PMLN knows it and, surprisingly, it is ready to face the challenges that lie ahead. Sharif and his daughter think that a verdict against them will strengthen their narrative and earn them the sympathy of the voters, which ultimately will prove to be vital in securing victory in the next elections. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is keen to see Sharif and his daughter behind bars, as he thinks that the PMLN will be easier to beat in the coming elections if they are not the public faces of the party.

While Asif Zardari is banking on “invisible forces” – the security establishment – giving him a space in the province of Punjab (which has the majority of the National Assembly seats). Zardari has achieved the desired results for the invisible forces in the last few months, being instrumental in bringing down the PMLN provincial government in Baluchistan and maneuvering the Senate seats from Sindh province to help the invisible forces make their man, Sadiq Sanjrani, the chairman of the Senate. There are around 20 to 22 electable candidates who are leaving Sharif’s party from south Punjab and there is a possibility that most of them will join the PPP.

This will give Zardari a chance to make a comeback in the coming elections in the province of Punjab. Imran Khan, despite having the support of the invisible forces and the big media houses, was not able to defeat Sharif, who was eventually disqualified.

Khan may have the support of the upper middle class in urban areas, but he lacks a strong party structure and an aptitude for constituency politics. His immature political decisions and harsh language are not liked by the traditional voters in Punjab, and that is the reason he has not been able to pose any threat to Sharif in constituency politics. This is the reason Zardari was brought to the game by the invisible forces.

While Both Zardari and Khan are hopeful of getting the premiership as a result of their services to the establishment, the situation on the ground seems quite different. Sharif, in spite of the fact that he is being accused of corruption, remains the most popular leader in Punjab, and he is all set to win the next general elections with a wave of sympathy working in his favor.

The establishment was of the view that after his disqualification, Sharif would leave the country or seek a national reconciliation order and live out his remaining days in exile

This makes the equation more complex as the forces behind his ouster are not in control of the narrative, which could allow Sharif to return to power. In fact, the establishment was of the view that after his disqualification, Sharif would leave the country or seek a national reconciliation order – a deal between politicians and the establishment – and live out his remaining days in exile.

However, Sharif has resisted and successfully created a narrative that has proved successful in retaining his vote bank. Now, observers wonder how he will be stopped from winning again. His victory will mean a huge blow to the establishment. If Khan was not able to win more than 27 National Assembly seats in the 2013 general elections, when he had the full backing of the establishment and a surge of popular support behind him, he surely cannot emerge victorious in 2018.

Nor can Zardari win large numbers of seats from Punjab. The only way to stop Sharif from winning is to dismantle his party. Members from southern Punjab are already leaving the party, and defections from northern and central Punjab could badly undermine Sharif. If the establishment somehow successfully manages to divide Sharif’s PMLN into factions and launch a new king party in Punjab, then Sharif will certainly not win a simple majority.

A hung parliament where no major political party enjoys a simple majority suits the establishment as they can easily install another puppet as a prime minister after the general elections. It looks good on paper and traditionally the establishment has always achieved its desired results through this formula. A hung parliament will also mean that there will be no chance of any legislation being passed against the will of the establishment. The problem with this theory is that until now, no one in Sharif’s camp has been ready to jump ship.

The few members of his party shifting their loyalties from southern Punjab cannot damage the chances of Sharif winning the next elections. The political dynamic has changed and now the voters do not respect and elect politicians who frequently shift their loyalties, so even the electable candidates are reluctant to leave the party at this juncture, as voters in Punjab are angry about the political role of the invisible forces and support the narrative of Sharif. This puts a big question mark over whether the next elections will be held.

There is a chance that if Sharif’s party remains intact and his narrative remains strong, even after being convicted by the accountability court, the caretaker setup will not hold after the general elections. This is because the delimitation of the constituencies is is not carried out according to merit and candidates have objections regarding the new constituencies.

A stay order can easily be obtained from the courts, and both Zardari and Khan, being pawns, cannot cry foul. In fact, both of them know that general elections in the near future cannot guarantee them a win. It is actually a fight between Sharif and the invisible forces, and Zardari and Imran khan are only the pawns. In the game of chess, pawns are used and sacrificed to stalemate the opponent. Only time will tell who will have the upper hand, Sharif or the invisible forces.

For now, a hung parliament or a technocrat setup suits the establishment, while Sharif, on the other hand, needs a fair and free election on time to win the battle. A hung parliament or no elections will mean a victory for the undemocratic forces, while general elections on time will mean a victory for Sharif and the PMLN.

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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