Maryam Nawaz speaks to a crowd in Gilgit-Baltistan. Photo: Mian Alamgir Shah

Far away from the capital city Islamabad, the northern mountain region of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is a hub of political activities in Pakistan these days. Elections there are scheduled for 15th of November 15, and all the mainstream political parties are campaigning for the 36 seats in the GB Legislative Assembly.

Traditionally this region supports the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), but the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz got a foothold in 2015 when it won the election there. However, most of the politicians in GB are turncoats who like to go with the sitting federal government, so this time many have left the PML-N and joined Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been in GB since last month campaigning for his party.

However, our focus is not on the GB elections but the change that is visible even in that remote region. On Sunday the town of Chillas was roaring “Respect the ballot.” Maryam Nawaz, who had just arrived in GB a few days earlier, gave an address in Chillas, and the mammoth crowd she pulled in was a development that cannot be understated.

Never in the past had the PML-N seen such support, and many political pundits were thinking that because of Nawaz Sharif’s anti-establishment narrative and his daughter Maryam’s aggressive tone against the bigwigs of the establishment, they would not be liked by the people of GB. However, this is not the case.

As Maryam campaigned for her party during her week-long tour in GB, the response of the crowd was overwhelming. From Skardu to Diamer to Chillas, people were chanting the slogan “Respect the ballot.” Those who thought that Sharif’s narrative had cost his party popularity outside of his political fort Punjab again were proved wrong.

So Maryam has again proved her mettle by pulling in massive crowds at public gatherings. This narrative of democratic supremacy has won PML-N popularity, and Maryam with her aggressive attitude against the powers that be undoubtedly has left her footprint outside the province of Punjab.

The GB masses responding to Sharif’s narrative and coming in large numbers to listen to Maryam is proof that people in the entire country are sick and tired of the hybrid regime led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and backed by the military establishment.

For PML-N it is a massive success, as irrespective of the election result in GB, it finally has created a space there and won support even with its anti-establishment narrative.

The GB crowd endorsing Sharif’s narrative is a sign that gone are the days when pointing out the flaws of establishment and its meddling in politics were considered crimes. It has also disproved the assumption of the ruling party that Sharif by naming the bigwigs of the establishment and accusing them of stealing his mandate is only damaging his own politics.

Time has proved that Sharif played his cards very well, and Maryam executed the plan bravely. So now when she is perhaps the most popular politician in the country, the question remains, what is coming next?

Neither Khan nor his backers can afford Maryam roaming freely and spreading the narrative of civilian supremacy in every nook and corner of the country. That too, in a situation when the country is already facing economic turmoil and the second wave of Covid-19 is on the rise.

In fact, Joe Biden winning the US presidential race is about to impact the dynamics of politics all around the globe. Biden at the helm of affairs means that hybrid regimes like Pakistan’s will face difficulties maintaining their grip on power.

The problems with these hybrid regimes are that they have to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the press and violate human rights to hold on to power. Biden and the Democrats on the other hand clearly do not support human-rights violations and suppression of free speech.

Besides, like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the PTI regime has put all its eggs in Donald Trump’s basket, while Sharif enjoys a good relationship with Biden and Democrats. So there could not have been a more perfect time for Sharif and the PML-N to challenge the hegemony of the establishment than when change in the US was expected, and Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh were also not the best.

However, it was a test of Maryam’s political acumen, as her father is out of the country and it was she who not only had to challenge the powers that be but also had to make sure that her party does not split into factions.

Much to the horror of the invisible forces, she has been able to carry the burden of the narrative that looked like political suicide for many pundits. After all, going against all the odds by taking on the establishment who defeated every political player on the power chessboard was not easy.

She remained silent when her party was trying to mend fences with the establishment, but she and Sharif both knew that the time to do that was over. So they both waited patiently, and when finally Sharif decided to play his cards, Maryam led the charge from the front.

You will not find any city, town or village in Punjab where the majority of the masses do not recognize her defiance. Her visit to Karachi was also a success, but creating a space for her narrative in GB is a much bigger achievement.

One may like her or dislike her based on one’s party affiliation or personal bias, but the truth of the matter is that she has turned a center-right political party into a vibrant anti-establishment party that now believes in provincial autonomy rather than believing in concentrating power in the center.

Before she arrived in GB, it was expected that election there would be between the PPP and PTI, but now she has at least given her party a chance to win a couple of seats and make the electoral battle intense. However, she is not there for an election campaign only, she is there to spread the narrative of democratic supremacy – a narrative that has dented the establishment so badly that it has entered a dead-end street.

Ask anyone in the establishment and he will tell you that no one in the military elite has any problem with the PPP or for that matter will not even deny that it is still ready to negotiate a deal with Fazal-ur-Rehman, but when it comes to the PML-N there is no chance of a deal.

The PML-N and the establishment have entered the final round of the battle, and there is no going back for either of them, no deals, no negotiations unless the establishment is ready to sacrifice a few of its bigwigs and agrees to form a new social contract.

This is a win-win situation for the PML-N, and an even bigger achievement than winning elections. The undisputed hegemony of the establishment has vanished; it is no longer a sacred cow now that its interference in politics has been challenged. The generals involved in corruption are being asked questions by the masses and dissident journalists openly.

Who would have thought that those who can smear anyone as a traitor within minutes would be questioned over their role in shaping an artificial political discourse? For this Maryam deserves the credit, as not only was she battling against all the odds, but she had to fight a war that never was won before by any political figure. She has pushed the mighty establishment to the wall, and perhaps she will get the desired result by bringing a few of its bigwigs to account.

This is good for the future of the country, as the decisive battle for respect of the ballot, and for civil liberties in a patriarchal society, is not only being fought by a woman, but one from the province of Punjab, which once was considered the fort of the establishment.

How Maryam and her party will behave if they knock out the establishment remains to be seen. But for now, she undoubtedly is growing in stature and can attract people from all segments of society.

How far she can go to defeat her detractors is not the question, as everyone has seen her defiance. How she will be able to end the polarization brought by the politics of hatred espoused by Imran Khan and his backers will be her ultimate test if she comes to power. 

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.