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Pakistan’s Political Landscape In Turmoil: Army’s Uncertainty & Nawaz Sharif’s Resurgence

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Of late it has become extremely difficult to predict the political developments in Pakistan. A few decades ago, it was openly said that three ‘A’ rule Pakistan, America, Allah and Army. While the latter two hold the same status even today, America has indeed lost the clout it once enjoined in the corridors of power in Rawalpindi. These days, even Army seems to be on uncertain ground. Recall an interesting news item published a few days ago which announced that the Pakistan army on Monday, 26th June had taken action against several officers including sacking three officers one of whom was Lieutenant-General! This was a part of military’s ‘self-accountability process’ regarding the events of 9th May 2023. On this fateful day, the military installations were targeted by protesters following the arrest of former PM Imran Khan. The army’s internal inquiry fixed the blame on many officers, senior and junior alike.

This was unthinkable some years ago. Pakistan army sacking a serving Lieutenant-general for perhaps political inclinations! This was and is shocking as in Pakistan politics and army walk hand in hand. Right from its birth army has played an important role in Pakistan’s political life beginning with general Ayub Khan who was invited in 1953 to join the civilian cabinet as the defence minister. Five years later Ayub Khan staged a coup and remained in power till March 1969. Then came Gen Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf…a long list indeed. Whether directly or indirectly the army has always called the shot in Pakistan.

A year ago, the Army engineered the sack of Imran Khan and installed Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of former PM Nawaz Sharif. The current term of the Pakistan’s National Assembly will be over in August 2023 and according to the Constitution, elections shall be held within 90 days after the dissolution of the lower house i.e. by mid-October. The last general election was held in July 2018. Going by today’s popularity of Imran Khan, the army fears that he might come back to power which is unacceptable to army as it is used to having a puppet in the chair of prime minister. Any politician grabbing power with popular mandate is a big no for Pakistan’s army.

To checkmate Imran Khan, the army seems to have decided to get Nawaz Sharif [74] back in the ring. Only last month, Pakistan’s national assembly has passed legislation limiting how long lawmakers can be disqualified from office, thus paving the way for exiled former PM Nawaz Sharif to return to politics.

It is interesting to recall that same Nawaz Sharif was once a blue-eyed boy of the army and has served as Pakistan’s PM three times. However in 2017 he fell from the grace and was ousted on graft allegations. Consequently the Supreme Court of Pakistan had barred him from politics for life. Not only this, later he was sentenced to seven years in prison. He was serving seven-year imprisonment in the Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore in the Al-Azizia corruption case before his departure to London for medical treatment. He is London since then and steers the family run Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [PML-N] party from behind the scenes.

Since Army needed a politician to take over from Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan was favoured by the army and was installed as PM in 2018. Imran Khan, the most popular cricketer of his time, became the first prime minister to have been removed from office through a no-confidence motion in April 2022. Four months later, he was charged under heinous anti-terror laws and in October 2022, he was disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan. On 9th May 2023, he was arrested on corruption charges. Protests broke out across Pakistan that led to the arrest of tens and thousands of his supporters. This episode completely soured the relations between Imran Khan and Army.

When the Army does not want to take-over directly, it hand-picks a politician of its choice. Years ago the Army had used Nawaz against Benazir Bhutto, then same Army used cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan to upstage Sharif. Now it seems that the Army once again wants to back Nawaz Sharif to outstrip Imran Khan whose popularity is soaring day by day. Army does not want to stage a coup for reasons of its own, but wants to control all the levers of power through a PM of their choice.

This time experienced, weather-beaten Nawaz Sharif seems to be taking cautious steps. It is reported that he had met Asif Ali Zardari, former president of Pakistan in UAE to decide on the timing of next general election as well as their respective ‘share’ in future power set-up. Let us not forget that Zardari is an important leader of the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP], the political party founded by legendary late Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto.

It is more than clear that Nawaz Sharif will be the main campaigner for PML-N in forthcoming general elections. But it is not yet clear whether he will contest the election as graft charges are still pending against him. In Pakistan it is not difficult to wound back the legal cases which tangles politicians once they bounce back to power. Same will happen in the case of Nawaz Sharif who currently gets a red-carpet treatment from the establishment.

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