As Pakistan goes to the polls, former PM Nawaz Sharif convicted in corruption case

It is unclear as of now what impact the 10-year jail term for Sharif will have on the electoral fortunes of his PML-N

July 07, 2018 by Peoples Dispatch
In 2017, Sharif had to resign following a Supreme Court directive in the aftermath of the release of the Panama Papers in 2015. Photo: Reuters

An anti-corruption court on Friday sentenced former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to 10 years imprisonment on charges of corruption relating to the ownership of four luxury flats in London. The National Accountability Bureau court also sentenced his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, to seven years in prison. Sharif was also fined £8 million. The decision came 19 days ahead of one of the most crucial elections in Pakistan’s history although it is unclear how it will affect the final results.

Last year, Sharif had to resign following a Supreme Court directive in the aftermath of the release of the Panama Papers in 2015. The documents revealed that he and his family had stashed money abroad and invested it in the apartments. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the Election Commision also ordered his removal as chief of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. His brother, Shabaz Sharif, now heads the party.

The PML-N is seeking to become the first party to return to power in a country which has the dubious record of being the only one in South Asia to have been under military rule for a longer time than civilian rule. Until recently, many analysts had predicted that the PML-N had a good chance of reaching the magic number of 172 seats in the National Assembly. However, the party has also faced many setbacks in recent times, Many key contenders have been disqualified while others face corruption charges in the anti-graft court. Shahbaz Sharif  is the face of the party but “his uncharismatic persona”, as journalist Zahid Hussain notes, “can’t lift the party up”.

The party, meanwhile, has alleged that ‘external elements’ (referring to the Inter Services Intelligence, the country’s main intelligence agency) is targeting it ahead of the election. Recently, a number of its candidates have allegedly been pressurized to leave the party. On July 1, seven PLM-N candidates from the Punjab province abandoned the party, declaring that they would be participating as independent candidates.

The other key player, former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tahrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), has been the major beneficiary of the troubles faced  by the PML-N. Opinion polls are divided about which of these parties has the edge in the polls. A recent survey by the Institute of Public Opinion Research (IPOR) in the Punjab province, which sends the largest number of members to the National Assembly, revealed that the PML-N retains its dominance in the region. Nearly 53% of voters were reported to have preferred the PML-N while 30% supported the PTI. A poll by Gallup reported a lead for the PML-N nationally, while a Pulse poll found the PTI likely to get 30% of the vote and the PML-N 27%.

The rise of the PTI has affected the fortunes of the other traditional power in Pakistani politics  – the Pakistan People’s Party – which is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari. The party, which is likely to dominate the Sindh province, may nonetheless end up third at the national level. At the same time, there is some speculation that the PPP and the PTI might join hands after the polls to form the government.

The election results may also be influenced by Islamic fundamentalist forces which are represented by quite a few parties, including the Milli Muslim League (an offshoot of the  banned Jamaatul Dawa), Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasoolallah, Allah o Akbar Tehreek, and Rah e Haq. These parties, which are relatively recent entrants to the scene, will be contesting as many as 80 National Assembly and 185 Punjab provincial assembly seats, and are likely to affect the performance of the PML-N. The PTI has also made opportunistic attempts to ride the wave of religious fundamentalism.

The PML-N may have completed five years in power without being overthrown by the military, a rare achievement for a government in Pakistan, but the influence of the military establishment on the politics of Pakistan remains significant. Many observers have pointed out that the military, along with other wings of the establishment, such as the judiciary, has been taking positions which favour the PTI.

Speaking to The Dawn News, Taimur Rahman of the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party earlier told The Dawn News that there was already ample evidence that the establishment was not impartial in the political process. “The confrontation between the military and judiciary on the one hand and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) on the other has already undermined the role of the state as a supposed ‘impartial arbiter’ in the political order,” Taimur said.

The election is also seeing an attempt by left and progressive forces to approach the people. The  Left United Front, an amalgam of a number of parties, has fielded over 50 candidates. The parties are looking at the elections not in terms of victories but in terms of reaching out to the people. The participation of an increased number of candidates is considered to be a positive sign. “It is only by fielding these candidates that the Left can continue to widen and broaden its appeal to the public,” Taimur told The Dawn News.

Many activists agree that social media is playing an effective role in the expansion of support for the Left in Pakistan. Taimur added that social media was allowing progressive forces all over the country “to connect and share information about activities, read their analysis, and discuss and debate strategy including tactics”.

The elections are also the first after the historic Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement, which saw the natives of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces stage massive mobilizations demanding an end to their persecution, and justice for those killed and those who had disappeared. Tens of thousands of Pashtuns took part in a long march in January 2018, and also staged a sit-in in Islamabad even as the State cracked down on the movement. Ali Wazir, one of the key figures in the movement, in contesting in the elections and his candidature has been met  with hostility by pro-government groups.

The participation of youth will be a deciding factor as more than 60% of Pakistan’s overall 208 million people is under the age of 30. Out of them, 58.5 million are between 20 and 24 years, while 69 million are under the age of 15.

Thus, the elections are likely to see a generational shift in voting patterns, which is a great opportunity for progressive politics. A whole group of new activists is coming forward in all the Left political parties and they are increasingly reaching out to social movements and the working class with a socialist message.