After the London conclave, on October 30, of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) which agreed to nominate Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab chief minister as their prime ministerial candidate if PML(N) wins a majority in the 2018 general elections, the burgeoning split within the party has been temporarily contained.
The polity seems poised for interesting transitions ahead. For one, the spectre of a “technocrats’ government” has been laid to rest for now. Not only did the Director General Inter-State Public Relations (ISPR), Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor dispel rumours in this regard (October 14), prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi clarified in London that there was no constitutional provision for such a change.
However, these statements haven’t done enough to completely put to rest civil-military dissonance which continues to plague democratic transition in Pakistan. Speaking at the same press conference while the DG, ISPR, expressed the army’s support for democracy, he lamented the civilian leadership’s (read interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal) criticism of the country’s poor performance on the economic front “...should we be satisfied with a glass half full...” qualifying that “there could be a threat to democracy if its [democracy’s] requirements are not being met.”
The NA 120 Lahore by-election result saw the PML (N) hold on to its bastion, albeit with a much reduced victory margin. While ousted PM Nawaz Sharif continues to project the narrative of being wronged by a biased judicial verdict in the Panama papers’ case, he has been counselled by his advisers in the party to tone down his rhetoric against institutions like the army and the higher judiciary. The PML (N) realises though, that their best bet for the 2018 elections rests in the charisma of Nawaz Sharif. It also wants to hold the senate elections on time, in March 2018, as these could substantially add to its majority there (going up to 37 seats out of 104 from its current strength of 27).
Though Imran Khan benefitted in political stature due to his relentless pursuit of the Panama papers’ case, his Pakistan Tehrik-e- Insaaf (PTI) has a long way to go before it can challenge the strong feudal and kinship (biradari) hold of the PML (N) in Punjab. Winning sizably in Punjab would be crucial to Imran Khan’s prime-ministerial quest in 2018. While he is holding a series of public meetings in mufassil towns of Punjab, where he keeps accusing the Sharif family of corruption and “robbing the country,” he has to keep looking over the shoulder against a possible adverse judicial verdict disqualifying him. The moral misconduct aspect of Ayesha Gulalai’s charges could also militate against his “knight in the shining armour” image.
However, uncertainty attaches to whether at all the 2018 general elections can be held on schedule, before August 2018. The new Census figures assessed Pakistan’s population at 207.8 million, with Punjab’s share coming down from 55 per cent to 52.9 per cent, Baluchistan’s and Khyber Pakhtunkwa’s increasing by 3.3 per cent and 2.4 per cent respectively, while Sind’s share was deemed unchanged at 23 per cent . This will pose complex administrative and political challenges, not only in delimitation of constituencies. The National Assembly (NA) speaker, Ayaz Sadiq, claimed political consensus on the thorny issue of seats’ distribution, with Punjab (183 NA seats out of 342 at present) apparently agreeing to surrender seven general and two women’s seats; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (43 seats) to add four general and one woman’s seat ; Baluchistan (17) to add two general and one woman’s seat. The Islamabad Capital Area (2) would add one general seat. There would be no change in Sind (75) and FATA (12). However, both the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM-Pakistan) and People’s Party Pakistan (PPP) have backed out from this understanding, claiming under-representation in the census count.
Meanwhile, army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has been undertaking important visits. He tried to improve relations with Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government in Afghanistan in end September. He went to Saudi Arabia for the third time in October and now, he has held talks with the political and military leadership in Iran.
The quadrilateral talks on Afghanistan were revived with a meeting in Doha and US Secretary of State, Tillerson’s Pakistan visit concluded without further mutual ruffling of feathers. This augurs well for Pakistan’s efforts to emerge out of diplomatic isolation, with China’s consistent support. This support extends also to protecting so-called “good terrorists” like Masood Azhar against international censure.
Though the judicial challenge against Hafiz Saeed’s continued detention has been temporarily staved off, the army/ ISI still remains committed to a planned mainstreaming of radical fundamentalist entities like the Jamaat ud Dawah (JuD) into electoral fray, come 2018. Reflecting partly, the army’s exhaustion with political parties like PML (N), PPP and PTI, this tactic offers an opportunity to invest a non-lethal role and an umbrella of legitimacy, not least because of the JuD’s professed anti- sectarian record in domestic conflict, it does not relinquish the option of its proxy instrument loyally executing lethal attacks externally when needed.
(The writer was special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat)