Nawaz Sharif fights back like a cornered tiger: Senate elections give former Pakistan prime minister a chance to plot a return

It can only happen in Pakistan. Days before elections to the Senate, the Supreme Court first barred former a prime minister from holding the office of party president. Shortly thereafter, it also barred him from being a "kingmaker", arguing that the court had disqualified him from being a king in the first place. The Election Commission thereafter rules that those given a ticket by Nawaz Sharif can only contest as Independents. Despite all of this, however, Nawaz Sharif's party wins the largest number of seats, and he cocks a snook at the court, with his party designating him 'Qaid for life'.

Not that the Sharifs emerge lily white from these developments. The court's actions were set off by a slew of petitions — 17 to be exact — from across the political firmament, largely arising from the tendentious Election Act 2017, which had been pushed through Parliament to allow Sharif, now dishonourably debarred from holding any office or a seat in Parliament, to continue holding office of party president.

The new act also stated that no member of the National Assembly could be debarred for more than five years, and in other clauses, also seemed to rein in the Election Commission. The fact that a party had used its majority to push through legislation solely to save a party leader accused of various infractions was hardly likely to endear the issue to the courts.

The former prime minister responded to the court's injunction by appointing his brother Shahbaz Sharif as acting president. There are those who had said he should have done this over a year ago, back when charges against him in the 'Panama Papers' case were being heard in court.

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

But that is not how politicians play the game. Handing over the reins to Shahbaz, accused by some of being overtly friendly to the military and its religious minions, would have ensured the eventual succession of his son Hamza, rather than Nawaz's own daughter Maryam. Be sure therefore that Nawaz will pull all levers to ensure that the handing over of the party reins to his brother will be temporary. That means he will have to bend a little — to people within his own party, and outside.

One part of this will be to gift the chair of the Senate to a loyalist. This is not as easy as it sounds, since the institution has been monkeyed about by various leaders to ensure they have a hand to play in the House, when necessary. The legal framework order issued in 2002 by the government of the then president, General Pervez Musharraf, had raised the number of seats to the Senate from 87 to 100. President Asif Ali Zardari increased it further by adding four seats for minorities from each province.

Given also that the ruling party does not have a preponderance in other states — particularly after Balochistan was so rudely snatched away from it — the tussle to get the chairmanship will inevitably require a great deal of what can be politely called "wheeling and dealing".

That has already begun, and the Sharifs will need the help of allies like the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and the National Party, both of whom have five seats each, to get the required numbers. With 33 already in the House, it's a question of getting another 10, which it could manage from an array of smaller parties like the Muttahida Quami Movement (Pakistan) of Farooq Sattar.

There are also 15 Independents in the Senate, and they are capable of shifting the views in the Senate to an important extent. Of these, six are Independents from the government of Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, who came to power after an unsavoury vote of no confidence against the PML(N)-led government in the state. Given that there is near unanimity of opinion that this vote was engineered by the deep state, it seems unlikely that these senators will unreservedly support the Sharifs.

The key, of course, is what they will demand in return, and that could be a hands off policy on Balochistan, without any questions asked on the role of the Chinese there. That should assuage military anger to some extent.

In general, the Senate doesn't matter very much, given that the prime minister attended only one of 103 sittings in 2016. In terms of the present politically charged climate, however, the Senate comes into its own at times when the Constitution has to be changed. If Sharif has to be accommodated within the establishment again, that is probably one way he will explore.

As of now, he is still in deep waters. The accountability court is yet to conclude four references, three against Sharif and one against Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. In addition to recording statements of 40 prosecution witnesses, it also has to record the statements of the accused, which includes Maryam Nawaz and other members of the family. The game is not over yet. With the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf having improved its position, even winning one seat from Punjab — much to the discomfiture of Hamza Sharif — the PTI has now settled down to be the third largest party in the combined House. Every seat now matters.

Having said that, however, Sharif's confidence regarding a comeback are not misplaced. After all, he is the king in this field, whether the court likes it or not.

An inkling of his plans for the future are apparent in the manifesto that the party put out recently. It points out rather gleefully — and not unjustifiably so — the hole into which the country has fallen in recent times, with the military establishment virtually in charge. The manifesto points out Pakistan's virtual isolation, given that even the Chinese did help them out in the recent negotiations at the Financial Action Task Force, and determines an overhaul of foreign and security policies in the future.

It appears that India has an important part to play in this overhaul, with the promise of a link-up to Afghanistan, Iran and central Asia among other things. Elsewhere, the manifesto sets out its "unequivocal" rejection of militancy and terrorism. The manifestos of political parties are usually simply feel good documents, and few even bother to read them. In the case of the embattled PML(N), however, this is a bait to the international community as a whole: Support us and we'll support you.

With the Senate elections under his belt, the worst fears of the military have been realised. Nawaz Sharif is again ready for business.

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Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 07:45:25 IST

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