Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media after appearing before a Joint Investigation Team in Islamabad on June 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was blamed for all the nation's problems, including those that occurred under his successor Imran Khan. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

A recent report in The Wall Street Journal indicated that the ruling party of Pakistan, PML-N, still enjoys the status of most popular party in the country and that its vote bank has increased since the last general elections.

Most surveys have confirmed this, which can be termed as a history in the making, as no one has ever been able to achieve such a huge level of popularity despite strong opposition from the mighty military establishment.

Controversial court decisions targeting the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) are proving to be a huge mistake on the part of the establishment. Sharif’s last five years have been spent in a deadlock with the military establishment, which enjoys hegemony over state affairs in Pakistan. It would have been a dead end and game over for any typical political leader after the judiciary allegedly aligned with the establishment. Instead, Sharif has risen again from nowhere and he seems to be the most dangerous threat to the hegemony of the establishment over state affairs.

Sharif is a shrewd politician and unlike his visible and invisible opponents he has a cool head on his shoulders. Historically Sharif always shows his cards very late and he always surprises his enemies.

His main opponent Imran Khan is an emotional and impatient person. Khan’s untimely political moves and his cooperation with the establishment and extremists like Sami ul Haq has badly damaged his reputation in the province of Punjab. If this were not enough, his choice of words and habit of abusing anyone who does not stand with him have earned him a bad reputation.

Sharif, unlike the country’s other politicians, realized very early that the dynamics of politics were changing, and he clearly read the writing on the wall that the voters’ mindset had changed. They are no longer interested in voting just for the sake of party affiliations.

He also read global events well and realized that the conservative style of politics and a hostile narrative toward Pakistan’s neighbors are not acceptable in modern times.

So Sharif focused his attention on development mega-projects, such as metro bus services in the cities of Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan, the Orange Line in Lahore, networks of roads and expressways, and he actually also did well to manage the electricity crisis.

Sharif also changed his style of politics and turned PML-N from a traditional conservative political party into a liberal and anti-establishment political force.

Sharif, unlike Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did not close all his options but instead let his younger brother Shahbaz perform the role of good cop. So the elder Sharif, being the bad cop, criticizes the political role of the establishment and the judiciary and continues to build a narrative against these forces and institutions, while the younger Sharif plays the good cop and keeps on praising the establishment and often sides with them. This policy actually has given Nawaz Sharif the unique opportunity to enjoy both the government and the opposition role.

On the other hand, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Asif Zardari, did not read the changing narratives of politics well and as a result his PPP is limited only to the rural province of Sindh. In contrast, Imran Khan grabbed the attention of the youth of urban populations and became a threat to Sharif, but his lack of patience and his persistence with old-style politics that actually is dependent on the establishment and religious vote banks made his position very weak.

Khan’s agitation politics was also not welcomed by the majority of the voters of Punjab, and the results of almost every poll are the evidence. Had Khan been able to focus on making mega-projects like Sharif, he would have been in a very good position of becoming a prime minister of Pakistan. Unfortunately he wasted this opportunity by not creating any mega development and wasted all his energies only to topple Sharif. This has given Sharif an edge, as with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, health reform, the expressways and metro buses under his belt he has a lot to show as an indication of his good performance.

The wave of sympathy from Punjab after his disqualification is also in his favor. He has also regained the lost place among youth by bringing his daughter Maryam Nawaz to the helm of affairs. She has smartly spread the message and narrative of her father and through the effective use of social media and electronic media, grabbed a lot of support from the urban-middle-class youth of Punjab.

Sharif’s good relations with global players also keep him in the good books of the international establishment and he has surely maneuvered the chessboard with their help, especially when he was almost done and dusted by the Pakistani establishment with the help of the judiciary. If Sharif somehow survives until the next general elections and his party gets a majority in parliament, his disqualification can be annulled by amending the law. If that happens, he will become the first politician in the history of the country to be toppled three times and still manage to come to power for a fourth time.

Pakistani politics right now seems all about Sharif. Even if he is not a prime minister any more, he is facing a trial and the judiciary is hostile toward him. He does not have any support from the establishment but still somehow he manages to keep himself at the center of politics. This shows that Imran Khan and Asif Zardari are not able to understand that the more they focus on Sharif the more powerful and relevant he becomes.

In politics sometimes you need criticisms and agitations against you to keep your vote bank intact. Sharif let all his rivals play their cards, he let them agitate and let them lock down the cities. He knew that the more his rivals agitated the more they would be exposed as the forces against the democracy and development.

Imran Khan fell into the trap much earlier, while Zardari jumped on the bandwagon very late, only in the hope of getting a little sympathy from the establishment so at least he could save the province of Sindh in the next general elections.

Khan and Zardari both know that it is their last chance, and if with the full support of the establishment they still cannot defeat Sharif in the coming elections, then Sharif will become the most powerful political leader in the country.

Who will have the last laugh only time will tell, but right now it is Sharif who is getting the benefit of his own victimization, and every single conspiracy and move played by the establishment and his political opponents is making him more popular in his electoral constituencies. It is the art of understanding the right time and right place to counter the moves from his opponents and a focus on development projects that has turned the tables in favor of Sharif, and he seems to be a force that cannot be defeated through the power of the ballot.

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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