Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chant slogans after the sentence against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif during a protest in Peshawar on July 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Abdul Majeed

Even as he was being led away to a jail cell on Friday, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was plotting how to galvanize a protest movement that could still cause a stir in Wednesday’s general election in Pakistan.

Everything about Sharif’s arrest on corruption charges was stage-managed for political impact, starting with his decision to land at Lahore on his return from exile in London instead of in Islamabad. Subsequent reports that Sharif was seriously ill, which could bring a big sympathy vote for his struggling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, were also seemingly timed to coincide with his return.

Sharif faces a 10-year jail term after being convicted in absentia by an accountability court last week for failing to disclose property assets in London and a further 12 months for refusing to cooperate with investigators. The sentences will run concurrently.

His daughter, Maryam Nawaz, was also arrested in Lahore and jailed for seven years for abetting a crime and one year for not cooperating. Maryam’s husband Safdar Awan was given a one-year sentence for not cooperating.

Sharif, 67, was unable to meet the estimated 10,000 supporters who rallied at the airport as he was whisked off to prison in Islamabad. He continues to accuse security agencies of conspiring to stop the PML-N from taking power and claims they are backing former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party instead.

“There was a time when we used to say a state within a state, now it’s a state above the state,” the three-time national leader told supporters  in London before his departure. In an interview with the BBC in Abu Dhabi on Friday, Sharif added: “What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?”

‘What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such drastic action and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?’

A rally led by PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, the ex-leader’s younger brother and former Chief Minister of Punjab, was supposed to receive Sharif and his daughter at the airport but he couldn’t make it in time. Shipping containers were used to block roads leading to the airport, possibly backing up claims that the caretaker government in Punjab is trying to obstruct the party from campaigning.

“If other people had managed to reach the airport in time, our rally could’ve done so as well had things been managed properly,” a senior PML-N leader told Asia Times.

It is unlikely Sharif will be granted bail in time to lead PML-N at the poll, and he may in any case be on the verge of kidney failure if media reports are accurate. But the fact that he is back in Pakistan will be enough to influence voting, particularly in Punjab, which is crucial to the prospects of any party that hopes to form a new government.

Of the National Assembly’s 342 seats, 141 are contested in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Subtract the nearly 80 seats that are reserved or nominated, and its importance goes up even higher on the electoral barometer, especially for the PML-N.

The party has long dominated the political scene in Punjab, having formed the provincial governments in 2008 and 2013. Most of the 126 National Assembly seats it won at the last election were also in Punjab, giving it the numbers to form the federal government.

In contrast, only six of the PTI’s 28 National Assembly seats came from the province in the 2013 general elections. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), meanwhile, was all but erased in the province in the last election, winning only eight state assembly and four National Assembly seats in the province.

Even the PML-N may struggle more than previously, as Islamist parties like the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Allah O Akbar Tehrik (AAT), affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have sprung up in Punjab, apparently in response to army support for jihadist groups. Analysts expect these groups to take some of the PML-N’s traditional religious support in the state.

Caretaker Chief Minister Hasan Askari Rizvi has refuted allegations that he is taking sides in the election

Caretaker Chief Minister Hasan Askari Rizvi has refuted allegations that he is taking sides in the election, saying he is keeping “absolute neutrality.” “There are clear directives for the provincial administration to ensure that their assignments related to the election are performed in a non-partisan manner, and with professionalism,” he said.

“The parties have the right to interpret political developments [in a] certain way, but the caretaker government will remove any doubts [of bias against certain parties] through the management of the general elections.”

Rizvi’s nomination as the caretaker chief minister has been criticized by the PML-N, which views him as the “army’s candidate.” PML-N says he is siding with PTI, which is considered to be the military leadership’s preferred choice to form the next government. Rizvi says he has been a staunch critic of a wide range of governments during both civil and military rule in the country.

Shehbaz Sharif’s failure to meet his brother at the airport and Rizvi’s nomination as the chief minister have become the focus of heated discussion among parties because of the impact they could have on the elections in Punjab.

The province’s importance to PML-N was underscored by the fact that Shehbaz stayed on as chief minister instead of being put forward as a nominee for prime minister when Sharif was removed by the Supreme Court in July last year. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi became premier instead.

PTI, the only party capable of challenging PML-N in the province, is confident of winning significantly more seats following Sharif’s arrest. “After the verdict against Nawaz Sharif, which proved our anti-corruption stance right, we are all set to sweep Punjab,” senior PTI leader and former Punjab president Ejaz Chaudhary told Asia Times.

 ‘After the verdict against Nawaz Sharif, which proved our anti-corruption stance right, we are all set to sweep Punjab’ – PTI leader Ejaz Chaudhary 

“Our choice of candidates is much better this time as well. We are going with seasoned politicians that have a stronghold in their respective constituencies,” he added. PTI was created primarily in the northwestern frontier areas close to the Afghanistan border, which partly explains why it has not made major inroads in Punjab.

Despite murmurs of disunity and the arrest of its supreme leader, the PML-N continues to attract significantly larger crowds at its Punjab rallies. Numerous PTI leaders have revealed party chairman Imran Khan was especially upset with the small attendance at the party’s Jhelum rally on Wednesday, despite the city being the hometown of PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhary.

Even so, many PML-N candidates in Punjab have revealed that they are being coerced by “elements in the military” to abandon their party and join the PTI. This is especially true in South Punjab, where the PML-N’s first choice candidates in Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzzafargarh decided to contest the elections independently.

“PTI is now much stronger in South Punjab,” claimed Habib Akram, the executive editor at Dunya TV. “It is central and northern Punjab that have traditionally been the PML-N’s strongholds, but even there the PTI looks like giving them a really tough fight.”

Despite what they term “political engineering” by the military establishment, PML-N leaders are still confident the party will retain Punjab.

“Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of vote ko izzat do [respect the vote] is resonating among the masses, even though there are efforts to criminalize that narrative,” said party leader and former information minister Pervez Rashid.  “That is why people will step forward and vote against the injustices being carried out.”

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