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

Pakistan is in a state of grave economic turmoil. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) regime is faced with the challenges of insufficient revenue generation, a high fiscal deficit, insignificant export growth, and double-digit inflation. This means Prime Minister Imran Khan is faced with the daunting task of fixing the economic problems before Pakistan is again forced to plead to international financial institutions or friendly countries to bail it out once again.

The third installment of a US$450 million bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be given to Pakistan soon, and this will mean a heavier burden of taxes and high utility bills and prices of everyday food items for the masses. The military establishment that brought PTI to power is definitely finding it harder with every passing day to keep the economy ticking, and this remains the hole in the ship of state that could scuttle it within a few months.

The growing frustration of the masses with the sinking economy is more than enough reason for the backers of PTI to ditch it. The problem, however, remains that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, despite working out a possible deal between his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the powers that be, is not ready to take on board the likes of Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) and would rather form a government with other partners, possibly such major opposition political parties as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam Fazal (JUIF) or even an acceptable breakaway bloc from PTI itself.

Sharif does not want to hand over Punjab to Provincial Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi or even share power with him, provincially or federally, as Elahi is a shrewd politician who always banks on the establishment and could ditch Sharif at any time if asked to do so. This is why Elahi has again mended fences with the PTI government for now, as he knows that neither will Sharif allow him a political space nor can he bank on Sharif to give him a respectable share of power in a future setup.

Sharif is ill and out of the country receiving treatment, but he is still very active in politics and is the one calling the shots, albeit from faraway London. He chaired the meetings of PML-N members in London when they decided to vote in favor of the extension of the tenure of Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa. He does not attend party meetings these days but that is not for health reasons, but because he wants to keep his cards close to his chest and is said to be in constant touch with his international friends and the Pakistani establishment.

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is the strongest candidate to run the next government if an in-house change takes place in the National Assembly, but the problem remains that Sharif wants immediate fresh elections, as he knows that a midstream regime change without a new poll would not only dent his vote bank but would lack the moral authority.

So Sharif is very near to locking horns once again with the invisible forces. Meanwhile his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, is another hurdle against finalizing a deal with the establishment, as Sharif wants her immediate return to electoral politics and wants the powers that be to drop their legal cases against her.

Maryam has been asked by her father to remain silent for now so he can at least get some political space for her. However, the establishment sees her as a threat to any possible deal, and despite assurances, it is doubtful that Maryam, if given a clean chit, will be ready to abandon her aggressive anti-establishment political narrative and style. So the deal at the moment is in flux.

Every day is bringing more misery to the masses in the form of inflation, unemployment and new taxes. Perhaps this is the reason Sharif is weighing his options. Even though he knows that any change in Pakistan requires the tacit approval of Washington and Riyadh, he still has not shunned Beijing, where he is popular for his quick decisions and ability to execute such projects as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Sharif’s only concern will be Riyadh, where he is not as popular as he used to be, as he not only refused to send Pakistani troops to Yemen while he was in power but also tried to free Pakistan from Saudi influence.

Khan, on the other hand, is just trying to remain relevant, and is still not able to see that his own party in Punjab is divided and that it would take mere days for a shrewd politicians like Sharif to exploit that division and make use of a breakaway bloc of PTI members from that province both in the Provincial Assembly and in the center, even without the help of the establishment.

According to insiders, the establishment actually wants to free itself of PTI but at the same time does not want to give a free hand to the PML-N. On the other hand, Sharif being in London means that he can freely use his strong diplomatic contacts to lobby the international establishment and friendly countries and can ask them to put pressure on the Pakistani establishment to accept his demands.

So the establishment, knowing how cleverly Sharif can influence friendly countries through his personal relationships, will be in a hurry to seize a deal on better terms than it would get if it lingers too long. A promise of new general elections soon but only after an in-house change is what the establishment can get right now, while Sharif may be thinking of not only new elections but also getting a clean chit for Maryam Nawaz.

As for Imran Khan, soon he will find himself on the same road as Sharif was on before. After a few months it will be Khan who is using the narrative of “respecting the ballot,” and Sharif, keeping this in mind, has smartly kept Maryam out of the picture temporarily so that in the future if PML-N has to confront Khan’s revamped narrative of civilian supremacy, she can be unleashed.

In any case on the power chessboard, another round of the nerve-racking battle between Sharif and the invisible forces for a power-sharing formula has started, as whoever holds his nerve and buys time for the maximum gain will get a better deal with most of his terms and conditions accepted, while Khan helplessly watches his backers making a deal with Sharif behind the scenes. He  must be wondering if it was worth coming to power on the shoulders of undemocratic forces.

For now Sharif and establishment are in a deadlock over a power-sharing formula for the future, but it will not last long. It is only a matter of few months before Imran Khan’s ship of state will be scuttled.

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