August 13, 2020
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Sharif’s Second Coming

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Sharif’s Second Coming
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THE PML— that is, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)— is expected to win the February 3 elections. And this time Nawaz Sharif is right in calculating that it will come out with a clear majority in the two important legislatures in the country: the 217-seat National Assembly in Islamabad and 240-seat provincial assembly in Punjab, both to be elected the same day. Anybody who rules in Islamabad with a majority in Punjab is supposed to be politically unchallengeable in Pakistan. The PML is, therefore, shedding a lot of baggage right and left to it that it carried in 1993 as its allies.

Many observers think the caretaker government would like to produce a hung parliament so that President Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari can go on ruling till 1998, when his term expires, to ensure continuity of the economic reforms he has enforced through ordinances. But signs and tokens are that the PML will be returned to power with strength. A low turnout is, however, expected because of the general disgust with political corruption.

As the PML consolidates, it may be time for Benazir Bhutto’s PPP to suffer splits. Charges of corruption during Benazir’s rule, especially against her husband Asif Ali Zardari, had crested in the period immediately before the dismissal. When President Leghari finally took over by recourse to the 8th Amendment, that split the party effectively. The PPP voter in Punjab, its strong-hold, became disenchanted, especially as Benazir was unwilling to dissociate herself from her corrupt husband. It appears that the absentee voter would be the solid PPP supporter who can’t be diverted to the PML votebank for ideological reasons.

Down in Sindh, where the PPP has always won over 60 per cent of the seats in the provincial legislature, splits have developed. After the murder of Benazir’s estranged brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto, his widow, Lebanon-born Ghinwa, is leading a splinter group called the PPP (Bhutto Shaheed). Another confederationist party headed by caretaker chief minister Mumtaz Bhutto, an estranged uncle of Benazir, is expected to throw in its lot with Ghinwa. If electoral campaigns are any indication, Benazir is still the most popular leader in Sindh and her majority in the Sindh assembly, it appears, would be whittled down only marginally.

The cities in Sindh will oppose the PPP as in the past; the MQM has retained its hold despite its terrorist past and a split engineered by Islamabad. The cities account for only 20 per cent of the Sindh assembly, but their 14 seats in the National Assembly invariably become a make-weight in a hung house. In 1993, the MQM wasn’t allowed to contest the federal seats; this time it’s expected to come back with its 14 MNAs to join hands with the PML and extract concessions.

Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf was supposed to make inroads into the PML’s right-wing votebank. But as the campaign heated up, Imran’s old ideological mentors denounced him as a Jewish agent and this has indirectly affected the morale of his supporters. Imran’s past life as a playboy has come to haunt him under Article 62 of the Constitution, under which those with a bad ‘moral reputation’ can be debarred from polls. Suddenly on poll-eve, sexual piety has become a criterion. Imran was unable to recruit good candidates and now it seems he will find it difficult to break into a system which has become bipartisan between the PPP and the PML. In some cities of the NWFP and Punjab, he still attracts large crowds but most of them are not seen as voters.

Accountability and election: this was the twin-slogan of the caretaker government. The first was endorsed by the people in most polls, indicating that a purge of corrupt politicians was the real mandate. But Leghari, having sensed the danger of a backlash against him in the event of a PML boycott, changed course, amending the accountability law and the electoral regulations to allow the targeted PML leaders to contest the polls. It was expected that most of the top leadership in both the PPP and the PML would be debarred from elections on charges of default on billions of rupees borrowed from the nationalised banks.

Smelling success, the PML has set about getting rid of its old allies. A Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan splinter group led by Maulana Niazi, who forced Sharif to endorse the infamous policy of special cards for non-Muslims in 1990, has been coldly shoved aside. A similar dislocation has occurred in the NWFP, where the left-wing Awami National Party is being made to feel that it is indeed a strange bedfellow. Sharif’s effort to ally the party with Ghinwa Bhutto in Sindh has fallen foul of the hardliners in the PML.

The religious parties, heavily funded from abroad and at the grassroots level, have tried in vain to get together across their fissures and are once again expected to fail on February 3. The most powerful of them all, Jamaat-e-Islami— led by the radical Qazi Hussain Ahmad— is boycotting the polls and agitating for accountability, a slogan that is in currency among the masses.

The PML anticipates a big victory and has taken care to mend fences with the civil-military establishment in Islamabad. As of now, it’s the only party supporting the Council for Defence and National Security, which allows the army to take part in civilian decision-making. People say it has also worked out an agreement with Leghari after February 3. It all points to the party’s realistic assessment that it will return with a clear majority in the National Assembly and the province that matters, Punjab.

However, psephologists continue to forecast a hung parliament which Sharif has catered for by disarming the establish-ment and the president with promises of cooperation. Soon after the elections, half the Senate will be re-elected in March, and the PML and its anti-PPP friends like the MQM are sure to pack it once again with their right-wing supporters. Only this time there will be fewer ‘clerics’ among them, thus relieving some of the intense pressure on the new government for further Islamisation.

(The writer, former editor of The Frontier Post, is now with the daily Aajkal.)

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