Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to return to Pakistan after a judge sentenced him to eleven years in prison after a court found that he and his family had acquired property abroad that he could not reasonably account for based on his known income or holding of assets. Nawaz who denies any wrongdoing has decided to face the charges at a time when Pakistanis are less than two weeks away from voting in a significant general election. While Nawaz remains barred from holding public office ever again, the PML-N party is still very much his.
Making matters all the more conflicted, Nawaz and his PML-N party have accused the sentences handed down to the former Prime Minister, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law Capt (retd) Safdar as being motivated by party politics. Moreover, PML-N continue to amplify their accusations directed towards the military and high courts that there is a conspiracy against the party deriving from the upper echelons of the so-called establishment.
By contrast, surging opposition party PTI and its charismatic leader Imran Khan have warned that the PML-N are waging a proxy political war against major state institutions with the clear implication being that in so doing, they are trying to de-legitimise the forthcoming election that is increasingly expected to be won by PTI. Imran Khan has called those rallying behind Nawaz in Islamabad “donkeys” which itself has led to PML-N’s current leader, Shehbaz Sharif (Nawaz’s brother) calling Imran ‘immoral’.
What is crucial though in terms of the election is whether Nawaz’s dramatic return to face justice becomes a weaponised distraction technique to shift the tone of the election from one of questions regarding new politics vs. old politics, questions of who is best placed to tackle historic issues of corruption and who is best to bridge inequality gaps within and across regions of the country, to a more simplistic question of: ‘Is Nawaz’s prison sentence just or unjust’?
With recent surveys indicating that PTI is set to win the election on the 25th of July, the incumbent PML-N may counter-intuitively be happy about the sentencing of its leader as it can be used to indicate a dramatic climax of the PML-N narrative which has implied that there is a pro-PTI conspiracy among major state institutions. In this sense, it could be said that the PML-N machine is preparing to use a Hillary Clinton style technique in so far as in the event of losing an election to a populist upstart party, they will attempt to shift the argument not to one of the election statistics but to a matter of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election. Already Imran Khan has struck back, blaming the chaos caused by Nawaz’s return for inflaming tensions along Pakistan’s borders.
Beginning to wonder why whenever Nawaz Sharif is in trouble, there is increasing tension along Pakistan's borders and a rise in terrorist acts? Is it a mere coincidence?
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) July 13, 2018
As the forthcoming general election will only be Pakistan’s second peaceful/democratic transition of power since the country’s founding, PML-N have been accused of playing with fire by setting themselves up for “electoral martyrdom” rather than a straight forward election. On the other hand however, PML-N can expect something of a pre-election boost due to Nawaz’s dramatic return to Pakistan that would have otherwise been difficult to secure had the former Premier stayed in London.
In this sense, putting all conspiracy theories aside, the election remains something of a two-horse race between Imran Khan’s PTI and the dynastic PML-N in Pakistan’s largest province Punjab. As it will largely be Punjabi voters who will be able to swing the election in favour of the upstarts against the incumbents, this is the key electoral battle ground, not least because PTI’s victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is assured while in Sindh, the country’s historic opposition party PPP continue to command traditional loyalties. In the south-western province of Balochistan polls have been conflicted although many point to a victory for the theocratic JUI-F, although other polls indicate either a PPP or PTI victory with a handful suggesting that PML-N may make a strong showing.
At present, the PML-N’s long standing narrative of a conspiracy among major state institutions against their electoral fortunes has been adopted by the PPP. In the immediate term, this is symptomatic of a PPP that is desperate not to lose its status as either the first or second party of Pakistan as a whole – a loss which is all but inevitable given PTI’s popularity.
In spite of all this, it seems that many voters across the country, especially those who are still undecided will now be voting in an election that at least in part will be a referendum on one’s opinion of Nawaz Sharif’s family. Among those who Nawaz is able to court sympathy will likely vote for the incumbent PML-N while those who believe Nawaz and his family to be corrupt and politically ineffective will on the whole, gravitate towards Iman Khan and PTI. While this isn’t an ideal narrative to emerge shortly before an election that ought to be more focused on issues, the nature of confrontational democracy whether in Pakistan, the United States, India or The Philippines dictates that it is personal politics rather than issues that often decides an election.