Pakistani Peoples Party activists protest against the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari, former president and co-chairman of the PPP, in Quetta on June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP / Banaras Khan

In Pakistan, it is the season for arresting opposition leaders. First, Asif Ali Zardari, the former president of Pakistan, was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on corruption charges, and then Hamza Shahbaz, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) stalwart and leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly, was arrested by the NAB on money-laundering and asset beyond means charges. It was expected that Zardari would be arrested sooner or later, as the plot was always to remove him and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from the political arena.

However, Shahbaz’s arrest was a surprise because he tried to be a “good cop” like his father Shahbaz Sharif and never vocally supported the narrative of Nawaz Sharif, which is “Respect the vote.” The arrests can be termed as an effort to divert the attention of the media and the masses from a budget that is unpopular and strongly influenced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

There are other dynamics involved in these arrests. The united opposition was ready to launch a countrywide movement against the incumbent government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), but the leaders of the mainstream parties are being jailed one by one, so those organizing actions against the government will encounter many difficulties.

Shahbaz’s arrest is perhaps a message to the PML-N that it is crossing a line. Since Maryam Nawaz and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi are both very active these days and they have successfully charged the PML-N vote bank by again taking on the government and the invisible forces and raising the slogan of Sharif’s democratic supremacy, the masters of the game are probably not happy. This is the reason that Shahbaz Sharif has been brought back again and PTI Federal Minister Faisal Vawda has already predicted that Shahid Khaqan Abassi will soon be arrested.

Shahbaz’s arrest is perhaps a message to the PML-N that it is crossing a line

The irony is that Vawda’s undeclared assets in a foreign country were recently exposed, but the NAB has not taken action. Meanwhile, former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Pervaiz Khattak and Prime Miniter Imran Khan’s sister Aleema Khan face similar allegations. Khattak’s NAB case is pending and the bureau seems to be in no hurry to bring the case to its logical conclusion, while Aleema Khan was hit with just a small fine for having undeclared assets.

Jahangir Tareen was also deemed to be dishonest by the courts (it is believed he made his fortune through inside trading), but the country’s anti-graft body did not take up his case. So the PTI government, like the dictator General Pervaiz Musharraf, is trying to use accountability as a tool to silence and undermine its political opponents. The question arises that if Musharraf, who was a powerful dictator from 2001-2008, and the even more powerful military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) were not able to yield results through this formula, how can a weak government like PTI achieve anything substantial?

Elected governments, unlike dictators, are answerable to the masses, and they cannot be successful by only arresting political opponents and doing nothing to improve the quality of their governance. Right now, the country is going through the worst economic turmoil of the decade, yet the PTI government is focused on settling political scores and silencing dissent by arresting opposition leaders.

On the other hand, the arrest of Shahbaz will not only lead to a backlash both inside and outside the Punjab assembly, it will also make it harder for elements in the PML-N who do not want to lock horns with institutions to convince Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz to abandon the narrative of “Respect the vote” and mend fences with the powers that be. It is pertinent to note that Punjab has traditionally been a status quo province, but Sharif’s narrative and Maryam Nawaz’s aggressive politics not only turned the province into an anti-status quo stronghold of the PML-N but it has actually created the feeling in the party’s vote bank that their leadership has been victimized. If people like Shahbaz, who is soft and believes in mending fences with the powers that be, are arrested, then sooner or later both Maryam Nawaz and Abbasi will be addressing public gatherings to charge the already angry vote bank of the PML-N. Neither the PTI government nor the invisible forces can afford a massive protest movement emerging in Punjab.

Shahbaz can be asked to change the narrative of the PML-N but he does not enjoy the popularity or power of Nawaz Sharif or Maryam Nawaz. In the end, the powers that be and PTI will need to talk to either Nawaz Sharif or Maryam Nawaz to end the ongoing political instability. Unless and until there is a semblance of political stability, the country will not be able to break free of the shackles of economic turmoil and misgovernance. If The PTI government or the powers that be think bringing Shahbaz back to the political scene can create a rift in the PML-N over whose narrative it should follow then they are miscalculating the politics of the Sharifs.

Talking to this correspondent, Muhsaid Ullah Khan, a senior senator and close aide of Sharif, said that “he has repeated in the past that the PML-N is not divided over the narratives of Shahbaz or Nawaz [Sharif]. The PML-N only follows the narrative of Nawaz, and Shahbaz has his own way of doing politics, but he too is strictly following the narrative of Sharif.”

Mushaid is right. Maryam will not take a back seat even if the PML-N is threatened with more arrests, because it is the only way Maryam can keep the party’s vote bank intact and charged. Meanwhile, Shahbaz will keep playing the role of good cop. The problem is that the opposition always has ample time as it is not expected to deliver on the governance front. It is the PTI government and Khan who are short of time. With the hefty claims they made before the elections, both the PTI and Khan are feeling the heat. In order to hide their failure, they are wasting time with a witch hunt against opposition members.

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Hamza’s arrest will only strengthen the PML-N narrative, convincing its vote bank that PTI is hiding behind the NAB in order to victimize the PML-N and conceal its failures on the governance front. It will convince voters that PTI is only settling political scores and that Khan, in the name of accountability, is trying to usurp power because he wants an authoritarian system of governance.

There are interesting times ahead. A massive opposition movement will end the PTI government, or a massive crackdown against the opposition will make it switch into silent mode. Stay tuned – keep watching Pakistan’s game of thrones.

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