Nawaz Sharif has finally flown out but it’s not curtains yet. It’s now the beginning of Act 2 of the ongoing political saga. The ailing former Prime Minister is not likely to return soon to resume his prison sentence and his departure has not lowered the political temperature.
Sharif’s departure, following protracted legal and political battles, may have also given the PML-N some relief, but the political party’s trials and tribulations are far from over. There are other factors that have helped Sharif’s departure, even if rumours of a backroom deal are not true. With a number of its leaders behind bars, or facing NAB investigations, combined with Sharif’s deteriorating health condition, the PML-N has a serious leadership crisis on its hands.
Even though the former PM was in prison, his presence in the country had given the party something to rally around. The strong probability of his not returning, even on health grounds, is likely to affect his credibility. The immediate issue before the PML-N is how to maintain unity in its ranks in the face of a clampdown, and continue to fight back. Maryam Nawaz, who is out on bail, will be guiding the party, but her restrictions are obvious.
There is no sign of the PTI government pulling back from the politics of vendetta. Sharif’s release on bail, and the court order allowing him to leave the country by removing the indemnity condition, seems to have hardened Imran Khan’s rhetoric against the opposition. His speech on Monday betrayed his anger and frustration, and brought out his authoritarian streak. He was visibly upset with the judiciary for what was perceived as “unfavourable” rulings. True to form, Imran is unwilling to see the ominous signs on the political horizon. The ongoing political crisis has exposed fault lines in a fragile coalition. There was a sharp divide over whether to allow Sharif to fly out for medical treatment. For the first time since coming to power 15 months ago, the ruling alliance faces the possibility of a split.
Not only did the allied parties come out publicly with their dissent, the divisions within the PTI were also noticeable. The most scathing criticism of the government’s approach in dealing with political issues came from the PML-Q leadership. Interestingly, while Imran Khan was on a warpath with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the Chaudhry brothers were hobnobbing with the JUI-F leader eulogising his “political acumen”. They also distanced the PML-Q from the government’s position on the Nawaz Sharif issue. The position of the MQM, another key ally, has not been very different.
Indeed, the JUI-F dharna ending with a whimper has been met with sighs of relief by the PTI government, but the problem has not gone away completely. The crafty Maulana Fazlur Rehman is not going to give up easily. Imran’s unyielding fight on all fronts may cost his government, that is confronted with serious economic challenges, dearly. The cracks in the ranks could widen if the PM does not exercise prudence. Nothing could be more damaging for a government with a weak governance record than to open up too many fronts. The problem is that Imran Khan has become a prisoner of his own rhetoric.
In the midst of all this, the latest statement from ISPR emphasising that the civil and military leaderships are on the same page has raised eyebrows. A major question is, what was the need of such a statement at this point? Of course, there have been all kinds of conspiracy theories circulating around regarding a perceived conflict between the government and military leadership. Still, there is no rational reason for issuing a clarification.
The present political crisis is largely of the government’s own making. Publicly abusing opposition leaders and making speeches that threaten to put everyone in jail will not end corruption. Imran Khan’s arbitrary style of governance has weakened the institutional workings of the state. His threatening declarations have made the whole accountability process questionable. The challenges for Imran Khan are no less in Act 2 of the political saga.
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