Pakistan opposition leaders Mulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (right), Shahbaz Sharif (second left) and Maryam Nawaz (left) listen to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (second right) during a press conference at the end of an All Parties Conference in Islamabad on September 20, 2020. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

The US president Abraham Lincoln once said very rightly, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Ever since the organized campaign against democracy after the general elections in Pakistan in 2018 that brought a rigged political discourse into the country, it has been the ordinary masses who have borne the brunt of this misadventure.

The military establishment that brought Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to power in order to teach Nawaz Sharif a lesson for not taking dictation is in panic. After Sharif broke his silence at a recent All Parties Conference (APC) and Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F) revealed the negotiations that took place between his party and the invisible forces, there seems to be frustration within the ranks of the establishment.

Fazal’s colleague Abdul Ghafoor Haideri said on a TV program that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa, invited a JUI-F delegation for a meeting and asked them to cancel the Azadi March against the PTI government. He also revealed that Bajwa told the JUI-F delegation not to interfere in “what we are doing with Sharif.”

Haideri’s revelation came after the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major-General Babar Iftikhar, appeared on TV and said Mohammad Zubair had a meeting with the COAS before Sharif delivered his now-famous anti-establishment speech to the APC on September 21, whereas Bajwa himself said in a statement that the army should not be dragged into politics. However, no denial of Haideri’s allegation was issued by the establishment.

For many, the proceedings of the past week may be a surprise, as not only did Sharif openly talk about the political interference of the establishment, but also the entire opposition for the first time looked serious about launching a movement against the establishment and the PTI government.

This correspondent wrote in September last year that the military establishment had lost the game and was only buying time. It has ruled the country directly or indirectly for around seven decades, so it takes only a common sense to understand that a complete retreat of the invisible forces will take a little time.

However, the question arises whether Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) along with the other opposition parties will be able to change the course of history. 

It will need a new political and social contract to be devised where all the institutions of the state take an oath that no institution will work outside the ambit of its constitutional role and the genuine democracy would be allowed to flourish in the country. For this to happen, Sharif will need to steer the PML-N through a very testing time.

It was Sharif who first took the establishment on, and then his daughter Maryam Nawaz eventually weakened the narrative of the military elite against her father and her party. Perhaps this is the reason that in frustration the powers that be are further shrinking the space for freedom of speech.

There are cases lodged against journalists on a regular basis to create fear and to stop the flow of information. The masses, who really are upset with the poor performance of the PTI government, are openly criticizing the establishment for creating the mess.

It was always evident that only a popular leader from Punjab could have made the toughest challenge to the establishment, and Sharif has proved this right. His timing of becoming active in politics again while outside the country cannot be overlooked, as after the rift with Riyadh, this government and its backers are feeling the heat.

GDP growth plunging to about o.07% in the fiscal year that ended in June means that Sharif now can play his political cards and can further push the establishment down a dead-end street. Meanwhile the establishment is sticking to the old tactics of declaring Sharif a traitor for accusing it of not only engineering the political discourse but also dictating foreign policy. That foreign policy has brought about the Kashmir fiasco and made Pakistan a defense-centric state instead of a progressive state.

And yet Sharif, who was banned by the media on the instructions of Imran Khan and his backers, was allowed to be shown live while addressing the APC on September 21.

It was a strategic mistake by the establishment and the PTI-led government, which thought that Sharif’s anti-establishment speech would be used against him as targeting the state itself, and he would easily be held up as a traitor in front of the brainwashed segment of society. However, this did not happen, and both the government and Bajwa are now under immense pressure.

All Sharif needed was a platform to convince his vote bank that he stands with his narrative of “respect the ballot,” and he successfully did that. At least for now his vote bank is enthusiastic and is rejecting the traditional propaganda of the establishment.

This means that the establishment has two options. The first is to forget about the future and continue keeping this artificial political discourse intact by keeping the masses in the hysteria of war-centric narratives and by using the treason shield. However, the problem is that the cost os continuing with the engineered political discourse is very high, and the crippling economy and growing poverty could result in a catastrophe at any time.

The other option is for the military elite to accept defeat on the power chessboard and go back to its constitutional role of defending the borders. This option may to against the ego of a few individuals in the establishment, but is the only way to restore its credibility and also bring the economy and foreign policy of the country back on track.

As far as Sharif is concerned, he has Maryam as his political heir, and this means that he has ample time to resist and to take on the battle.

In fact, a few of Sharif’s close aides in Pakistan and London who wished not to be named clearly told this correspondent that he has decided to go to any extent and will not mind losing a few members of his own party who might switch loyalties after Sharif’s aggressive stance against the establishment.

The protest in front of Sharif’s residence in London by men wearing masks is just a glimpse of the hard days coming for the PML-N in the near future. It was perhaps a message by the invisible forces, but then Sharif has seen it all before, and he will not surrender at this moment when he according to his close aides is very confident that he will knock his detractors out of the game. 

As for the establishment, it is time to think about what it achieved by ousting Sharif and rigging the ballot. In 1971, the establishment of that era was not able to crush Sheikh Mujib’s popular political narrative, and it should have learned its lesson after the fall of East Pakistan.

From the fall of Dhaka to the Kargil fiasco, the establishment always needed a genuine political leader to save the day, so it is easy to understand that sooner or later it will again need Sharif, Maryam, or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to save the day again. However, this time it seems that the political engineering process will be stopped forever and the general who brought the doctrine of New Pakistan will have to take the back seat.

For once and for all, it is in the interest of Pakistan that the constitutional role of every institution should be defined so democracy can flourish and Pakistan should become a progressive state instead of a defense-centric state. 

For now, the Senate elections to be held next March and the verdict in the reference case against Justice Qazi Faiz Isa remain the two main battlegrounds on the power chessboard between Sharif and the establishment. However, even if the establishment wins the next two rounds, it still will not find any way out of this dead-end street unless real democracy is brought back and the rigged political discourse is replaced by a genuine one.

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.