Despite being badly wounded and pushed into a corner, the tiger (election symbol of Nawaz Sharif’s party and his own image among his followers) hasn’t stopped roaring. But while the tiger remains a formidable adversary and isn’t showing any signs of throwing in the towel in the face of overwhelming odds, he is undeniably in trouble.
Given the forces arraigned against him – the military, judiciary, most of the media or at least the section that tows the line of the ‘deep state’, and of course opposition parties, most of which have either struck deals, or are working under instructions, or even trying to desperately suck up and win the affections of the ‘deep state’ – the prospects for Nawaz Sharif’s party in the forthcoming General Elections don’t look very bright. Not only history but also current political realities are heavily loaded against Nawaz Sharif and his party.
Historically, while there have been instances of political parties retaining a province in successive elections, no political party has ever won two elections in a row to retain the federal government – the only one instance of this happening was when the Pakistan Peoples Party won the 1977 elections, but that doesn’t count because no one accepted the results and it, ultimately, led to a military coup by Gen Ziaul Haq. Also, neither the person nor the party which has been deposed from office either by dismissal, disqualification or dictatorship is ever allowed to win the election that follows their ouster.
When Benazir Bhutto was sacked in 1990, it was a given that she wouldn’t be allowed to win the election that followed. The same happened after Nawaz Sharif was dismissed in 1993 and later when Benazir Bhutto was dismissed for the second time in 1996. After all, the whole idea of ousting a Prime Minister from office will be defeated if he/she is allowed to come back into office through the back door.
An election victory in Pakistan that goes against the wishes of the ‘deep state’ is akin to the back door.
The connotation of ‘free and fair’ elections in Pakistan is quite different from what it is in rest of the world. In Pakistan, elections are either fair or free; sometimes they are fair up to a point after which they become free (to rig or tilt in the desired direction by the ‘deep state’). What terrifies the uniformed guardians of Pakistan about genuinely free and fair elections are the nasty surprises they throw up, which are completely contrary to their expectations and calculations. After the 1970 elections, which paved the way for the break-up of the country, the Pakistan army has never been comfortable with the traditional definition of ‘free and fair’ elections.
Every single election since then has been mired in controversy and allegations of rigging and even altering declared results. Sometimes the interference in elections is blatant, but, generally, it is discreet, even though the menacing shadow of the ‘deep state’ and its ‘agencies’ looms large over the entire electoral process.
Often enough, the ‘election managers’ from the dirty tricks department of the ‘agencies’ overplay their hand and the tilt becomes a wave, and leaves in its wake unintended consequences – the 1997 elections that swept Nawaz Sharif back into power are an example.
The bottom line is that while the ‘deep state’ almost always manages to defeat its bête noire of the time, it isn’t always able to calibrate or fine-tune the scale of victory of other players. Quite like Artificial Intelligence machines become better with use, so too is the case with the Pakistani ‘deep state’. With time and experience, the Pakistan Army’s ‘artificial intelligence’ model (the pun is entirely intended) has picked up new tricks on how to stack the political board so that the election results are as close as they want them to be.
The ‘deep state’ and its underlings are aware, or at least fear, that unless the deck is stacked against the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), it will be difficult to defeat it in the next election. In a fair election, the PMLN will be in pole position. If it doesn’t manage to get a simple majority, it will at least be the single largest party.
The reason is simple: the PMLN hasn’t suffered any major reverses in its bastion, Punjab. In almost all the recent by-elections held after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court (when the PMLN was thought to be at its weakest) the PMLN has won with fairly comfortable margins. Nawaz Sharif remains the most popular and powerful leader in Punjab, and has skillfully cultivated an image of an anti-establishment leader who also appeals to the conservative right-wing voter. If the turnout at his public rallies is any indication, the damage that was sought to be inflicted on his political support base by his disqualification by the judiciary is very limited: those who opposed him, continue to do so with even greater vehemence; those who support him, continue to back him. And if Nawaz Sharif is convicted on corruption charges – a likely outcome, especially in light of the fact that he is continuing to draw the crowds – then, far from losing support, he might gain the halo of a political martyr and get sympathy votes.
Popularity is not the only thing Nawaz Sharif has in store. Over the years, the PMLN has forged a formidable ecosystem of patronage, including in the administration, which even the dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf wasn’t able to dismantle. Then there is the political machinery that the PMLN has built, which has worked out the political equations at the constituency and even booth level. The PMLN’s mastery over the thana-kutchery-patwaripolitics as well as local-level biradari and dharra (grouping) politics is enviable. On top of this, it has the support of most of the ‘electable’ politicians. Apart from Punjab, the PMLN has a fair hold in the Hazara belt of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In terms of weightage, Punjab and the Hazara region alone are enough to make PMLN the single largest party.
In order to cut PMLN down to size, a multi-pronged attack has been launched. The first prong is of course the court cases against Nawaz Sharif. His impending conviction could unravel the party, but it could just as well galvanise it. To prevent the latter, the ‘deep state’ is doing everything possible to create a political environment that convinces people that PMLN will not win the next election.
Winnability is an important criteria for cementing support base. People generally avoid voting for someone who they think can’t win, or won’t be allowed to win. Once this impression gains ground, a lot of the ‘electables’ also tend to jump ship and join the party that has the wind behind it. Although before every election, there are desertions from parties, this time around a conscious effort is believed to be underway to wean away the ‘electables’ from PMLN. There are reports of politicians being intimidated, threatened with prosecution (the Supreme Court and the corruption watchdog, National Accountability Bureau have become handmaidens in this endeavour), warned of ‘deep state’ support to their rivals, bribes being offered, favours being extended and all the rest of the stuff that helps convince a politician to switch sides. As the elections come closer, this process will gather pace.
While a large number of desertions will of course be a setback, the PMLN has the ability to limit the damage. A more problematic issue for Nawaz Sharif will be a possible split in the party. For months now, the media, which is firmly embedded with the ‘deep state’, has been working overtime to sow divisions not just within the party but also within the Sharif family.
Rumours, fake news, insinuations, disinformation and misinformation are being constantly floated and aired to try and drive a wedge between Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif (who is now the president of the party). After Nawaz was disqualified as both PM and President of the party, an attempt was made to replace him with Shahbaz, who is generally seen as being more pliable, obedient, subservient to the military. But for a variety of reasons, Shahbaz didn’t bite.
Suddenly some old and some relatively new cases have been opened up against him. There is sword hanging over Shahbaz’s head if he refuses to play ball. The problem is that if Shahbaz goes against Nawaz, the party will split, as will the vote bank, and both will lose. Therefore, until the elections, there is a compulsion for the brothers to stick together because they have both realised that they can either swim together or sink together. Any tussle for power will only happen after the results are in. With the brothers deciding to stick together, for now the plan has shifted to trying to engineer high-profile defections from the party that leave it gasping for breath and unsettle it.
Another effort of the ‘deep state’ has been to cut into Nawaz Sharif’s vote bank. The emergence of the Lashkar-e-Taiba political front, Milli Muslim League (MML), and the Barelvi extremist party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), are believed to be trojans of the ‘deep state’ which will draw some of the traditional vote that went to PMLN. The general belief was that since the next elections are likely to be closely contested, if MML and TLP can take away 10-15 thousand votes of PMLN, then it will give a leg up to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, which is the only credible challenger to PMLN in Punjab – the PPP is virtually dead in Punjab, and its state is even worse than that of Congress party in UP and Bihar.
The problem, however, is that in the by-elections, while the MML and TLP managed to get around 10-15000 votes, they don’t seem to have cut into the PMLN vote bank. In other words, the impact of these parties on PMLN’s support base has so far been minimal. If anything, it would appear that they are eating into the votes of PTI and/or other smaller players.
The main political challenge to Nawaz Sharif will be from the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. But the guy is just too flaky in his thinking. Worse, he is boring, repetitive, abusive and obnoxious, with no real plan on how to deliver what he is promising. His own aides have admitted that he is clueless on working out details of everything he promises. Over the past few months, the compromises that Imran Khan has made in terms of people with very unsavoury and dubious reputations being inducted in the party, has robbed him of some of his lustre.
In any case, his party organisation is no match for PMLN, nor does he have the sort of grass-root knowledge and understanding that the PMLN can bring to bear in an election. Most of all, Imran Khan is a maverick. While he is a lackey of the ‘deep state’, he also spooks the real rulers of Pakistan because he is seen as something of a loose cannon who is egotistical and opinionated without having any understanding or knowledge about anything.
The most likely outcome, provided Nawaz Sharif is able to stay in the fray, is that the PMLN could emerge as the single-largest party with around 90-100 seats, Imran Khan could be second with around 60 odd seats, PPP third with around 30-40 seats and the rest divided among other political players. This sort of outcome will suit the ‘deep state’ because a divided National Assembly is so much easier to control. Of course, what such a divided House does to governance is quite another matter.