Maryam and Nawaz Sharif at Abu Dhabi airport on their way back to Pakistan on July 13, 2018. Photo: Twitter
Maryam and Nawaz Sharif at Abu Dhabi airport on their way back to Pakistan on July 13, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have been released from prison after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) suspended the jail terms given them by the Accountability Court.

Though the High Court only suspended the pair’s incarceration on a temporary basis as it is still hearing Sharif’s petition against his sentence, given the hostile circumstances, it is still a very positive development for the politics of Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz.

In fact, this IHC decision has completely changed the dynamics of the political situation in Pakistan.

A lifeless opposition has suddenly come back to life as Nawaz Sharif and his daughter are both free now, and it will be the fierce speeches and public gatherings of Maryam Nawaz that will create havoc for the already weakened coalition government of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Sharif and Maryam have shown nerves of steel by not bowing down to the pressure of the invisible forces and finally, it seems that the gamble has paid off.

While they are free they can highlight the fact that they were victimized and put behind bars at the behest of the military establishment to ensure that Imran Khan and his party won the general elections held in July.

Moreover, they can also reorganize their political party, as it was in disarray under the leadership of the ex-PM’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif.

Whether the powerful establishment will allow them to spoil the game it has staged by bringing in its puppets to control Pakistan’s democracy from behind remains the million-dollar question.

Right now Pakistan is going through hostile relations with the US, and China too is not happy with the lackluster and immature approach of the PTI-led government.

So in these circumstances if Sharif decides to launch countrywide public gatherings to garner support, it will not only push both Imran Khan and the establishment on to the back foot but it will generate tremendous pressure on the military establishment and the judiciary not only to step back but also to give Sharif his due share in the power politics.

A defiant Maryam Nawaz pulling crowds into public gatherings and taking on the establishment and talking about the rigging of the general elections and on the other hand Sharif’s shrewd approach of getting the opposition united to give a tough time to the government could force the establishment toward an early election.

It is too early to predict what will happen on the political chessboard, as it will depend on how Sharif and Maryam play the game of politics in the future.

If both father and daughter decide not to lock horns with the establishment by softening their stance, and instead focus on criticizing and taking on the judiciary and the PTI government, it will be acceptable to the establishment. In fact, sacrificing a few pawns like Imran Khan or in the judiciary means nothing to the mighty military.

Sharif with a new lease on life has the opportunity to reshape his political strategy and take on his opponents one by one instead of all at once.

Meanwhile the establishment has been able to ease some of the pressure it was facing both internally and globally for denying Sharif and his party a level playing field in politics and for keeping him and Maryam behind bars with the help of controversial and weak decisions of the court.

In fact, Sharif has only been provided temporary relief just to teach him the lesson that if he behaves properly he will get out of the woods. To behave properly means not to cross the red lines defined by the military establishment.

For the moment, it looks as though both Sharif and the establishment are poised equally on the power chessboard. But keeping in view the history of Sharif and the aggressive political ideology of Maryam Nawaz, one can easily predict that it will not remain the same.

Maybe Sharif and Maryam will not challenge the mighty establishment for the time being, but only one of the players will survive in the long run on the chessboard as it is now inevitable for Sharif and Maryam to keep walking on the path of anti-establishment politics.

Their Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party’s whole election campaign revolved around respect of the ballot and not the invisible rule of the military establishment. It will almost be impossible for Sharif and Maryam Nawaz to make a U-turn and take a soft stance regarding the role of the establishment and to persuade the neutral and progressive vote bank to accept the shift in the political strategy.

Then there is also an element of personal enmity, as Sharif was not able to see her ailing wife in her last days and she died without seeing her husband and daughter at her side.

As far as the military establishment is concerned it will also not trust Sharif and Maryam again and in case if it feels threatened it can easily send both of them back behind bars, as two other cases against Nawaz Sharif are still in the courts, and given the history of the judiciary-military alliance, it is very easy for the establishment to frame any political opponent on corruption charges and get him convicted.

A roaring Maryam Nawaz and a shrewd Nawaz Sharif will mean that it is not over and the fight on the power chessboard will continue, while a silent Maryam Nawaz and a cautious Sharif not interested in uniting the opposition and launching a massive agitation campaign against Sharif’s unjust removal from office and politics will mean surrender.

In any case Imran Khan seems to be the ultimate casualty in the fight between the establishment and Sharif.

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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