Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president Shehbaz Sharif (right) and former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (left) look on as Maryam Nawaz (center), daughter of jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, speaks during a press conference in Lahore on July 6, 2019. Photo: AFP / Arif Ali

This is the age of misinformation and propaganda. Their use has always been prevalent on the power chessboard of Pakistan, but now it is at a peak. The reason is that the nerve-racking battle between the mighty establishment and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has entered the final stage.

No one wants to lose this battle, as Sharif has put everything at risk including the life and future of his daughter Maryam Nawaz, while the military establishment’s 70-year hegemony is under threat, as slowly and gradually Sharif with the help of his political allies is forcing the establishment into a dead-end street.

No one could have thought that only 14 months after sending Sharif to prison the security establishment would start backtracking from the power chessboard.

The Pakistani establishment is not simply powerful in its own right, with the controlled media and hegemony over state resources, but the current engineered discourse has been backed by Riyadh and Washington. Not a single analyst could have predicted that a regime backed by these superpowers could be defeated. However, all that changed when the establishment proved incapable of pre-empting India’s annexation of Kashmir. That proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the current political discourse.

According to whistleblowers in the power corridors who do not wish to be named, there is a rift within the security establishment, with many high-ranking officials wanting not only an end to military involvement in political matters but for certain heads to roll. The announcement by Fazal-ur-Rehman, president of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) party, of a planned “long march” to Islamabad in October and to hold a sit-in there is not a coincidence by any means. It is believed by many whistleblowers that Fazal has the backing of certain quarters within the establishment who do not want the current dispensation to continue. These people are angry over the Kashmir fiasco and the political engineering that resulted in the current political and economic turmoil in Pakistan.

However, as no one likes to give up power easily, this final round is getting uglier and uglier, with the establishment trying to persuade Sharif not to join Fazal’s long march and instead offering him deals, including new general elections in 2020 with Sharif and his daughter given a clean chit. On the other hand, Shahbaz Sharif, who is currently heading the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in the absence of his older brother Nawaz and Maryam, is being asked to persuade Nawaz to accept the deal. Some compliant journalists and pro-establishment politicians are spreading misinformation about Sharif accepting the deal to get new elections in return for not backing Fazal, and that he and Maryam will leave the country for a while.

Since propaganda plays a very crucial role in determining the outcome of political battles, it it probable that the establishment is using this as its last tool to recoup a game it has already lost. However, Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan, a member of PML-N, is of a different view. He told this correspondent that Sharif would never accept any deal, especially now that he has nothing left to lose and the establishment has everything to lose. Perhaps he is right: Sharif has lost his wife and his daughter and political heir Maryam Nawaz is in jail, while his own character has been assassinated. So it is the establishment that has everything to lose. It has no answer as to why the government it sponsored, headed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is not able to avert the economic turmoil and why there has been no sound response from Pakistan over the issue of Kashmir.

This itself is a victory for Sharif as he has been in prison for 14 months, and yet he and Maryam remain the key subjects of the TV talk shows and newspaper headlines. The inexperienced Prime Minister Imran Khan has also played into the hands of Maryam Nawaz. He not only kept Sharif alive politically by trying to hold him responsible for the PTI government’s failures but he also became unnerved by the huge public gatherings in support of Maryam.

So right now the establishment is fighting to continue its hegemony over state affairs while Sharif only needs to sit and bide his time. Meanwhile Fazal is gearing up for a massive show in Islamabad and the Kashmir issue is putting immense pressure on the establishment.

Only a man with no political acumen can make a deal with a regime that is already sinking under its own weight and errors. The Pakistan Peoples Party is an example in this regard, having succumbed to establishment pressure and betrayed the opposition many times, most recently by announcing that it will not join Fazal’s protest. Perhaps the PPP in return will get a little relief but in the long run, it will remain limited to the Sindh interior as far as electoral politics is concerned.

A defiant Sharif was always going to checkmate the establishment, even from behind prison walls. But the establishment perhaps fell prey to its own propaganda and somehow started living in the hallucination that Sharif was history and the invisible forces had won the battle. The journalists who always go with the wind also kept both Khan and the establishment in the illusion of a victory that never was real but only limited to the TV screens and newspapers.

ECP ruling favors Maryam

On Tuesday, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced its verdict on a petition for the disqualification of Maryam Nawaz as a vice-president of her party. The petition was dismissed, and she carry on as the de facto head the PML-N. But that is not likely the end of the story: Look for the pro-establishment news channels to propagate very soon that the ECP ruling is evidence that Sharif has accepted a deal.

However, in reality, Sharif is as defiant as he was before, and it seems he will eventually risk everything to win the battle for democratic supremacy in the country. The only thing Sharif needs is patience. Whether he backs Fazal’s protest or not is irrelevant, as if a prisoner is being approached to make a deal with the establishment, this clearly shows who is actually winning the battle. It is just now a matter of Sharif keeping his nerve, while the establishment will need a miracle to get out of this self-created catch-22 position.

Many observers and analysts a year and a half ago believed that the party was over for Sharif, as not only would he be sent packing but his PML-N would also be dismantled and the establishment would prevail, and many analysts endorsed Imran Khan. Perhaps they now will realize that the party was never over for Sharif but in fact the events of a year and a half ago were the beginning of the end – “game over” for the establishment on the power chessboard.

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