With the advent of a new year, it would be interesting to measure up the stocks of the Pakistani political mainstream to make sense of where the country may be headed in 2016.
In all of this, the civil-military relations obviously loom large, especially given the ascendency of the General Raheel Sharif-led military in dominating the national narrative following its definitive response to the devastating militant attack on the Army Public School on December 16, 2014 in Peshawar.
However, the paradox inherent in this change is that the more things change the more they remain the same! Consider. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) appears to have made a tactical retreat in virtually leaving the decision-making in both the domestic and external dimensions of the anti-terror fight to the military, and even key foreign policy areas.
This has allowed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to breathe easier, and emerge majorly safe from the Imran Khan gauntlet that, most political pundits agree, was shrewdly used by the security establishment to cut Sharif down to size. Back in the winter of 2014, Khan, the chairman of the main opposition Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) nearly brought the house down in Islamabad after four months of an electric campaign against Sharif over allegations of electoral fraud that he claimed deprived his party of genuine votes to pave the way for Sharif’s third return to power.
The stunning Peshawar school attack proved to be a blessing in disguise for Sharif as Khan was forced to call off the campaign amid calls for a decisive national action.
To Sharif’s good fortune, subsequently, Khan’s team also negotiated poorly for a judicial commission with clumsy terms of reference that made it nearly impossible for the PTI to prove its charges. For instance, there was absolutely no way it could verifiably demonstrate that the PML-N had “systematically manipulated, by design, large-scale rigging to win the election”. To cut to the chase, the PTI played right into the hands of the PML-N with the result that the judicial commission rejected the PTI complaint after detailed hearings.
This setback led to such a negative momentum shift for the PTI that despite later, winning a moral upper hand when poll tribunals nullified the results of three national constituencies out of the four the PTI had put up as symbolic complaints to prove the elections were rigged, it took the sting out of the party.
The real blow to PTI’s esteem was dealt when Ayaz Sadiq, the National Assembly speaker from the ruling party, was able to scrape through a tight finish against its candidate in perhaps, the most important — certainly, the most watched — bye-election in the country’s history. It provided such a domino effect for the PML-N that it romped home in the following local government elections across Punjab.
All this coincided with dwindling fortunes, personally for Khan, who after going through a rough patch divorced his recently wedded second wife. The party itself was reeling from internecine strife over the choice of Aleem Khan, who, however, gave Sadiq a run for his money.
But such is the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics that just when the yearend scorecard would have shown the PTI spiraling into a glorified has-been, it raised a stunning rearguard action that left the ruling party red faced in a crucial National Assembly constituency bye-poll in Lodhran — one of the four the PTI had cited to prove its allegations of poll rigging. The margin of PTI’s victory — against a full-on ruling party well-oiled machine — is huge enough to reinforce the view that it will still be a force to reckon with in the coming year.
Not so rosy is the picture for the once-formidable Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which lurched from crisis to crisis all of last year — in no small measure thanks to the indiscreetactions of its leadership. Both the father-son duo of Asif Zardari, co-chairman, and Bilawal, chairman, have landed the PPP in a quagmire, and it now seems they are taking a punt on a possible collision with the Centre and the military establishment to revive its flagging fortunes.
The beleaguered Zardari after daring to ‘fix’ the military earlier last year over allegations the Rangers were overreaching their mandated powers in the ongoing clean-up operation in Karachi against criminal elements — that saw the arrest of his close confidante, Dr Asim Hussain, who, pundits suspect may provide a trail that may eventually lead to holding the alleged corrupt party leadership to account — simply disappeared abroad.
In a symbolic manifestation of poor governance, a critically ill 10-month old baby died last month when Bilawal took off for the inauguration — somewhat ironically — of a hospital ‘trauma’ centre with a pompous security detail that prevented the father of the baby from seeking emergency treatment amid road blockages.
With public anger at a tipping point and Zardari maneuvering to slash powers given to Rangers by provincial fiat — ostensibly to prevent the investigation of his tainted comrades — the PPP is pretty much looking down the barrel of people’s reckoning. The party may yet have to compromise and restore full powers to the Rangers to save their wobbly ship.
• The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad.