Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Wikipedia
Nawaz Sharif at a conference in London in 2014. Photo: Wikipedia

If by-elections are an indicator of public opinion about the current Pakistani regime, then Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is surely losing the popularity it garnered through electronic media and the country’s invisible forces.

Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) winning back seats in the National Assembly that had been snatched in the July general election is a huge victory for the party. PML-N was fighting without the top brass, as Shahbaz Sharif jailed by the National Accountability Board and his elder brother Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam both mysteriously silent. It is a worrying sign for the PTI, as it indicates that PML-N is still popular in Punjab and it has been successful in keeping its vote bank intact.

Perhaps Nawaz Sharif has been taught the lesson that if he behaves like a good kid and does not lock horns with the establishment, his party can still be given political space. On the other hand, the revival of the PML-N sends a message to Prime Minister Imran Khan that “we are watching and we are not happy.”

Though the results of the by-elections will have very little effect on the status quo, as PTI with its allies still enjoy thin majorities in Punjab and in the National Assembly, it has created a perception. It is perception that actually matters in power politics, and now the results have shown that PML-N by abiding by the rules of the game is being given a nod by the establishment.

It also indicates that PML-N has somehow managed to revive its relations with the invisible forces – a sign that PTI should not ignore as its dismissal performance in running the state affairs and its inability to govern are actually making the “invisible forces” worried.

Historically these invisible forces only favor those who are good at negotiating economic deals and loans from foreign countries and international financial institutions. In fact, PTI has created history by becoming the first sitting Pakistani government to lose by-elections after a mere two months of rule.

It was always expected that after worsening the economic crisis and bringing in a new wave of price increases that affected the masses, PTI would not be able to repeat its performance in the July general elections. However, no one expected PML-N to be given political space by the establishment, so it came as a shock to many political pundits.

Sharif is playing it safe and not taking on the establishment. In fact, he seems to have surrendered for the time being. Since politics is the art of manipulation, there is no room for idealism and heroics in this domain

What lies ahead is a very interesting equation. Sharif is playing it safe and not taking on the establishment. In fact, he seems to have surrendered for the time being. Since politics is the art of manipulation, there is no room for idealism and heroics in this domain.

To many from the Internet generation, Sharif’s tactical retreat may be a compromise on his anti-establishment narrative, but the fact of the matter is that politics, even anti-establishment politics, seeks power to meet its goals. So Sharif has played it smart by adopting the “live another day” paradox.

Imran Khan has been used smartly by the establishment of the power chessboard. If he fails to deliver on his electoral promises, the responsibility will lie on his shoulders, not his mentors’.

The establishment, after seeing that almost all of the countries friendly to Pakistan have refused to help, and that even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has delayed the bailout package for another two months, has given Sharif a new lifeline. It is up to Sharif now to use this space on the power chessboard and maneuver proceedings in his favor. So far he is not making any effort to topple the PTI government in Punjab, nor is he interested in agitation. He knows that the more time Imran Khan spends in power in Islamabad and in the province of Punjab, the more his flaws will be exposed.

After all, governance is not all about making lofty claims, it is all about executing the plans and vision. Khan was brought to the helm by playing to people’s desires and manipulating them by asserting that a change in the status quo was necessary to change their lives.

The problem remains that Khan throughout his life had counted on propaganda and manipulating people subconsciously; he never prepared a proper plan or strategy of exciting things in case he actually came to power. As a result, it left space open, and it is the law of politics that if you leave even a little space, a third force or your opponent will occupies that space as a result.

If Khan continues to commit blunders as he did in the case of the IMF, where he wasted almost two months deciding whether or not to go for a new loan, it will be game over for him very soon. After all, the power chessboard is all about economics – no more finances mean no more games of power.

Perhaps Khan should be realizing soon that stardom is not enough to persuade the global players to come and invest in Pakistan. It seems Sharif will give him some time so the further gets exposed, Sharif’s good ties with China, India, Turkey and Qatar, and his influence in Washington, will be enough to persuade them to put more pressure on the establishment by not providing further loans or military aid to Pakistan. After all, Sharif, an old ally of the invisible forces, knows very well that this is where it hurts them most.

Then there is another dimension to the power chessboard, as PML-N’s resurgence will compel many to join its ranks again, and uncertainty will continue to grow among investors and power brokers on whether to ditch Sharif or not.

It was never simple and it will never be smooth sailing for Khan in the future either, as he knows deep down that a fractured mandate can easily be taken back at any time. That is why winning the actual ballot through fair elections matters a lot.

For now, there is an atmosphere of jubilation in the PML-N camp while the PTI camp seems worried. The establishment has nothing to lose, as if Khan fails they have an obedient Sharif as a backup who has learned his lessons and perhaps realized that without the establishment he will never be able to seek power again.

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.