The blockade of key road leading to the capital city by a group of fundamentalists and the release of Interpol wanted terrorist exposing the under currents in Pakistan. The democratically elected politicians are marginalised or facing corruption charges as military tightening grip on judiciary. Another crisis is brewing in Pakistan….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
Pakistan is yet again caught in that unenviable situation of its nationhood. Its polity is climbing a precipice with no way to take a U-turn. It fears a military takeover if its squabbling institutions push too far, too hard. And its government trudges on in an interim fashion, its top political leadership in judicial cross hair, impotently flexing muscles as it prepares for general elections next summer.
In a silent coup that any discerning observer of Pakistan can see, the military and the judiciary are working to oust disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from the political arena. And each of their moves is fraught with the prospects of the opposite – Nawaz actually becoming stronger, a mix of defiance and victimhood of the system, having been removed from power three times, and raring to go to the hustings.
Indeed, Nawaz, perhaps the shrewdest political living in Pakistan, has spurned the reported advice of his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who he has notionally appointed his political heir to hoodwink the establishment that wants the elder Sharif to name someone and go into exile. But Nawaz is in mood to quit. This is evident from the defiant moves of his daughter, Maryam who has always been touted as his successor in the long run.
Having failed to get him to go into exile, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) that is pursuing the graft cases against the Sharifs at the behest of the Supreme Court, is now moving to prevent him from leaving the country by placing him on the Exit Control Order. This will prevent Nawaz’s visits to London to meet his ailing wife and his party colleagues, something he is capable of turning into victimhood.
The prospects of a military coup, like the ones Ayub, Yahya and Musharraf had staged, do not seem bright since the military establishment, not inclined to face the music at home and globally by a rash action, thinks it can manage things by playing favourites among the parties. In the process, it seems bent on political and social management of a very volatile situation that has dangerous, long-term, portends for Pakistan.
In this flux situation, that danger comes from the radical Islamists jumping into the political arena in time for the elections. Already, the Abbasi government has let out in the open Hafiz Saeed, if only to spite India. That is signal for others like him and around him, to take the electoral course to gain political legitimacy. In short, those who helped the Islamist and right-wing parties in the 2013 elections are now players themselves.
This was more than evident from the bye-election that was caused after the ouster of Nawaz. His ailing wife, under treatment in London, won the prestigious poll in Lahore NA-120 with a narrow 13,000 vote margin, much less than 41,000 that Nawaz had notched up in his political backyard.
Ominously, two candidates, Azhar Hussain and Pir Aijaz Afzal belonging to radical Islamist groups, together polled over 10,000 votes. The number may look small, but the trend indicates their growing acceptance. At any given time, the Islamists have never been major vote-catchers. What matters is their clever alliances with the mainstream parties and their ability to reach out to the public (they are always in the forefront during a calamity) and win political and electoral legitimacy.
These forces have become bold and their next move has been to lay a siege of a key road that blocks traffic between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It is dangerous because not just the National Assembly, but the military headquarters and indeed, the entire seat of power in Pakistan must traverse through this artery.
The Islamists are livid with the Law Minister who has sought to block them from contesting elections by proposing a law. The head of Tehreek-i-Labaik, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has said that the protest would press on until the resignation or removal of the law minister. He has also demanded the release of his followers who have been arrested and a withdrawal of all cases against his person.
The protestors have used a clever ploy of pitting themselves on one side of the interchange that falls in the jurisdiction of the Punjab government, while the rest sit on the other side that is federal capital territory. This strategy has enabled them to evade police action from either the federal or the provincial governments. In any case, both the governments are scared to touch them, their political bosses being in cahoots. And both the authorities find it convenient to blame each other for inaction. The Islamists grow in strength each day, defying, even beating up and kidnapping police personnel.
The controversy surrounds an amendment to the Elections Act 2017 that concerns a declaration required of those who wish to hold public office. Several parliamentarians have pointed out a change in the text of Form-A, which candidates submit at the time of the election. In the amended Form-A, the words “I solemnly swear” were replaced with “I believe” in a clause relating to a candidate’s belief in the finality of prophethood. It was not made applicable for non-Muslim candidates.
The candidates, Azhar Hussain and Pir Aijaz Afzal, who lost to Kulsum Nawaz, participated in the Islamabad protest and delivered strong-worded speeches.
The anti-Nawaz campaign by the military/judiciary is meant to make things easy electorally for Imran Khan. The establishment that had propped up Nawaz during the Ziaul Haq era now prefers Imran who is mercurial and politically naïve despite being in the game for over years. Imran Khan was mentored by late Gen. Hamid Gul, the former ISI DG who sowed the seeds of Islamism in Imran Khan’s mind. Imran has always been soft to militants, to the extent of being called “Taliban Khan” by former dictator Pervez Musharraf. He stopped pro-militant rants only after the terror attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.
One pre-polls assessment as 2017 ends is that Imran can gain the maximum with the ouster and possible imprisonment of principal rival Nawaz in Punjab, while he can consolidate position in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where his party rules. The military/judiciary establishment could then move against former president Asif Zardari, who controls much of Sindh, holding his PPP down. Significantly, the establishment has no candidates in Balochistan that it rules with an iron hand at most of the time.
Clearly, although all three – Nawaz, Imran and Zardari – are facing corruption charges, the court has singled out Nawaz, since he was the prime minister and by many assessments, remains the most popular with an organization, the PML-N that has not broken down or split despite being targeted. Zardari is not being touched for now and Imran is being treated with kid gloves by the very judiciary that has damned Nawaz. The judgment it delivered is flawed technically and its repeated rejections for review have led to the judiciary being seen as patently biased.
In the process of being selective, the judiciary has lost its credibility, which is what the military wants, so that it can get the court to do their bidding, now and in foreseeable future.
The process and the outcome of the impending elections – assuming they are held and the situation does not warrant a direct military takeover – is anybody’s guess as of now.
What is clear, however, is the ascendance of the radical Islamists that Pakistan tells the world it is fighting, but have become part of its DNA.
The Friday Times editor Najam Sethi is fond of calling the military/judiciary “Miltablishment.” In his latest editorial (November 17, 2017), he warns against “a self-righteous Miltablishment bent on social and political engineering. There is also a legal and political limit to the powers of the Miltablishment that is shy of seizing power directly and afraid of reaping the whirlwind of domestic and international opposition.”
Painting a grim picture of the overall situation, analyst Irfan Husain says: “We are now in a situation where politicians need the support of the military, as used to be the case earlier, but the judiciary and the electronic media now play a growing role in determining who will form the next government. In the middle of all this jockeying, ordinary voters have little say.