Parliamentary elections in Pakistan are more than a year away (any time within three months after June 5, 2018), but the country of around 19 crore people appears to be in poll mode now. Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has launched a major drive to discredit Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with a view to preventing him from recapturing power, though it is generally believed that the ruling PML(N) will win a majority of the seats in Pakistan‚Äôs National Assembly, which has 342 seats in all, but only 272 are filled through direct elections. Ten seats are reserved for religious minorities and 60 are for women, to be filled by way of proportional representation among the recognised parties winning more than 5 per cent of the votes cast.
In an interview with the popular Geo news channel, former President and ex-army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf has claimed that Nawaz Sharif‚Äôs Pakistan Muslim League or PML(N) for short and the People‚Äôs Party of Pakistan (PPP) led by slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto‚Äôs son Bilawal and her husband Asif Ali Zardari will win most of the seats in the coming elections. Chances are that Nawaz Sharif will be back to power again despite massive corruption charges against him highlighted by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan.
The wily ex-General expressed the view that ‚Äúthere was a 90 per cent chance that the PPP and the PML(N) will win the elections from their traditional strongholds, including from possibly KP (Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, the erstwhile North-West Frontier Province), if a third force is not formed to mount a challenge. Imran Khan alone cannot defeat the PML(N) and the PPP because he has no plan.‚ÄĚ
Yet Imran Khan‚Äôs PTI is doing all it can to expose Nawaz Sharif as a looter of Pakistan, having done little for the uplift of the common man. The latest political missile hurled at him by the PTI is that ‚Äúit would also approach the apex court against the PM for allegedly taking money from Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in the name of Jihad ‚ÄĒ money, which, its claims, was later utilised in 1989 to conspire against Benazir Bhutto‚Äôs government,‚ÄĚ according to a report in Pakistan‚Äôs Express Tribune. The PTI‚Äôs claim is based on revelations made in certain media interviews and a book that Sharif ‚Äútook money, amounting to 1.5 billion from former Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden to promote jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan,‚ÄĚ the report pointed out.
Through a petition Imran‚Äôs party will also demand immediate implementation of a Pakistan Supreme Court judgement given in 2012 in the Asghar Khan case, showing that Sharif and other politicians received money from an intelligence agency before the 1990 general election to constitute an anti-PPP alliance. This is not all aimed at dethroning the PML (N) leader.
Though Sharif got temporary relief in the Panama Papers case with the Supreme Court observing that there was ‚Äúinsufficient evidence‚ÄĚ to remove him from the PM‚Äôs office, it ordered setting up of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to go into the corruption charges levelled against his family. The message was crystal-clear: Sharif now has no moral authority to continue to function as Prime Minister till the investigation is complete, as pointed out by the PTI and the PPP.
Corruption is likely to emerge as a major issue as the elections draw nearer as, according to last year‚Äôs disclosures made in the Panama Papers, Sharif‚Äôs family used offshore tax-evasion regimes to take their undeclared money outside their country. Irrespective of the apex court‚Äôs breather, Sharif‚Äôs image has got dented considerably. Interestingly, widespread corruption and a poor governance record were the main factors which helped the PML(N) in defeating the PPP during the 2013 elections.
How the PML(N) counters the opposition attack on it through the social media, which has no system of verifying facts, remains to be seen. Imran Khan and his camp followers are bound to make use of the social media platform considerably to defeat the PML(N) at the hustings.
The problem with Imran is that he is still not considered as serious a contender for power as Sharif because of his past record. He made a serious political mistake when he married a British Jew, Zemima Khan (her acquired name after marriage), who got divorced after a few years. His extra-marital affairs during younger days like his relations with a girl called Sita White cannot be forgotten by people. His support for extremists like the Taliban too damaged his reputation in the eyes of a vast section of peace-loving people as well as the international community.
Like the army factor, there is an international factor too which plays a significant role in Pakistan‚Äôs elections. Earlier it was the US which tried to influence the course of politics in Pakistan, but now that role is likely to be played by China. Pakistan‚Äôs all-weather friend has much stake in the political goings-on in Pakistan after it made a heavy investment in developing Gwadar port in Balochistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Since these two projects with clearly visible Chinese stamp were promoted during Nawaz Sharif‚Äôs current stint as Prime Minister, it is obvious that the Chinese may like the PML(N) to recapture power in Pakistan. The Chinese are believed to have good rapport with the Pakistan Army, whose support cannot be ignored by any party aspiring to form its government in Islamabad.
Nawaz Sharif knows more than anyone else about how to keep the army in good humour to be able to run the government undisturbed. He lost power after he got involved in a tussle with the then Army Chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf. He had developed a good rapport with Gen Raheel Sharif when the latter was heading the army establishment in Rawalpindi till the day Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa took over as Army Chief. Some time ago there were reports of tension between Sharif and the new Army Chief over the issue of handling the threat posed by terrorists, but it was quickly sorted out in the interest of stability in Pakistan. General Bajwa is unlikely to create any hindrance in the way of Sharif remaining in power.
Yet there are reports of a large section of people interested in ‚Äútabdeeli‚ÄĚ (change in political dispensation). They would have preferred to vote for the PPP under Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, but they are unable to pose any serious challenge to the present incumbent because of serious differences between the father and the son over many issues. Asif Zardari appears to have become a spent force after his party lost the elections in 2013 because of major corruption charges against him and non-performance of his government. The PPP can emerge as the biggest party only in Sindh if Zardari and Bilawal play their cards well. The PPP‚Äôs position is too weak in Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa to pose a challenge to the PML(N)‚Äôs domination over the political scene in Pakistan.