New power game and polls

With one of the largest political parties having been virtually demolished, the coming elections have become a tame affair.


Representational image. PHOTO: DAWN

January 26, 2024

ISLAMABAD – LISTENING to the speeches at the hustings, one wonders whether the political leaders vying for power have anything new to offer the electorate.

With less than three weeks left to the polls, and ostensibly assured of a fourth term as prime minister in an election widely perceived as ‘managed’, Nawaz Sharif is finally out on the campaign trail — with a victimhood narrative. He seems to be stuck in a time warp, lamenting his past ouster from power.

Sharif’s public speeches are all about the illusory golden period under his rule. There seems to be hardly any understanding about the dire challenges that lie ahead. An element of confidence appears to stem from the forced sidelining of his main competitor. The electoral battle is deemed to have already been won without a fight.

Hence there seems to be no need for the PML-N leadership to present an election manifesto or a concrete plan of action for the future. Populist rhetoric and personalised polemics continue to mark a listless election campaign. It’s all about wheeling and dealing under the shadow of the powers that be, rendering the entire electoral exercise a virtual selection process. There is not even a semblance of fair play, with the odds heavily in favour of the chosen ones.

With one of the largest political parties having been virtually demolished, the coming elections have become a tame affair. This is certainly not a very reassuring prospect for a troubled nation looking for a change in status quo and the strengthening of the democratic process. It marks a great leap backward. The hope of a democratic transition has been all but dashed. What we are witnessing is the new season of the game of thrones, with the roles reversed.

There is an ironic twist in the events prior to the 2018 elections and what is happening in the run-up to the 2024 polls. In the former case, it was Nawaz Sharif who was imprisoned and barred from standing in the elections after being ousted from power and Imran Khan was the new kid on the block favoured by the establishment.

The former cricket captain, who had earlier led Pakistan to victory in the World Cup, was projected as the new hope for the country and was propelled to the top political office. But the protégé turned into the villain and had to be politically culled. So, a deal was struck with the erstwhile rival and the rapprochement allowed Nawaz Sharif to return from self-exile. His conviction was dropped by the courts in record time. The apex court’s ruling striking down lifetime disqualification has cleared the way for him to run for elections.

It is the third time that Nawaz Sharif has been lifted out of disgrace to become the main contender for the coveted office. Meanwhile, it is the former blue-eyed boy of the security establishment who now finds himself behind bars, implicated in multiple cases on a range of charges. Not only him but many other top leaders of his party, too, are barred from contesting the elections.

Khan’s party was dealt its most serious blow when the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan to strip the PTI of its election symbol — the cricket bat. That has left party candidates with no common symbol. They will stand in the elections as independents. The retribution of the establishment has been severe, leaving the party in tatters.

It may not be the first time we are witnessing repressive action by the state against a political party but the severity of the crackdown on the PTI is unprecedented. Yet the party refuses to die. It is evident from opinion polls that repression and dismantling of its structure have not diminished its support base. Behind bars, the former prime minister remains the most potent political force.

Given the volatility of the situation, it will still be hard for the security establishment to fully manipulate the outcome. Imran Khan, with his undiminished popularity, has proved to be a most formidable challenge for the powerful security establishment. Notwithstanding his idiosyncrasies and convoluted political views, he has become a symbol of resistance. His popularity may be much higher among the youth who comprise the majority of voters, but he also commands strong support among the elite.

He may have a cultish following but it is the growing rejection of dynastic politics that seems to have boosted Imran Khan’s support base. His slogan for change, though it doesn’t go beyond rhetoric, has galvanised the young generation and educated sections of society.

More importantly, growing anti-establishment sentiments have given impetus to the PTI. Not surprisingly, the ongoing repression and the military’s looming shadow over politics has pushed even staunch critics to stand up in PTI’s support. As a survey in this paper’s online edition indicates, a large number of people will vote despite their scepticism for the electoral process.

Meanwhile, the PML-N and other mainstream political parties have failed to alter their ways in a fast-changing sociopolitical environment. In fact, dynastic politics have strengthened in the PML-N, with the party leadership being fully dominated by members of the Sharif family. There is no induction of outside or young blood in the ranks of the party leadership.

What has been most damaging for the party is the growing perception of it being backed by the military establishment. This view has gained further currency, with the swift dropping of Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and his eligibility to stand in the elections. His tenor has also softened against the generals whom he had earlier blamed for his ouster.

Once the victim, the PML-N leadership seems to have now become the main partner in the game plan of the powers that be. It may help Nawaz Sharif fulfil his ambition of becoming prime minister for the fourth time. But returning to power through tainted elections and with the backing of the establishment can never confer political stability. And who should know this better than Nawaz Sharif himself?

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