All eyes on Asif Zardari as Sharif fights for survival

Since what you read last week in this column, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is no closer to a definite resolution of the political crisis in Islamabad than it was then.

By the time you read these lines, former president Asif Zardari will have met beleaguered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and assured him of his party's support to thwart the designs of a 'third force' — a less-than-oblique reference to the security establishment.

Zardari heads the Pakistan People's Party, which is the largest opposition party in Pakistan's national parliament although it has purposely taken a backseat since losing power in last year's general elections.

The vacuum was filled by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of belligerent cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, who is currently engaged in a standoff with the Sharif government after his demand for verification of votes in an election he said was stolen from his party was ignored by Sharif.

In a battle of attrition, Khan protesting with his party's cadres and activists at the famous D-Chowk in front of the Parliament House in the federal capital has refused to leave unless Prime Minister Sharif resigns.

Pakistan has since come to a standstill as Khan and Tahirul Qadri, a cleric, who has his own axe to grind with Shahbaz Sharif, the PM's younger brother and Punjab province's chief minister, after 14 of his workers were killed in clashes with police he says were directed by Shahbaz, are camped at the D-Chowk.

The powerful military has reportedly, leaned on the Sharif government to get its act together in private as well as trot out a press note urging the conflicted parties to resolve the crisis amicably while avowing to protect national assets.

Speculation has been rife for weeks that the protest campaigns led by Khan and the firebrand cleric have the covert backing of the security establishment to cut Sharif down to size for trying to assert civilian supremacy in areas the establishment has traditionally come to own.

The military and Sharif developed differences over the fate of retired General Pervez Musharraf, the former army chief, who is being tried by Sharif for treason for abrogating the constitution in 2007.

The trial, which has recently slipped into a go-slow mode, is unprecedented given that any kind of khaki accountability has long been considered a red line no civilian government has dared even contemplate, much less cross.  

But apparently, Sharif wants to avenge Musharraf, his handpicked army chief, who deposed and later exiled the-then prime minister for trying to dismiss him after the two had fallen out over the Kargil debacle in 1999.

The army is loath to the idea of putting its former boss on trial, and has sought not only to let Musharraf go but also pushed for a military operation in North Waziristan, the hub of militants fighting the state, the PM did not want over fears of a backlash in Punjab, the stronghold of the Sharifs.

The khakis eventually had their way.

The military is also wary of Sharif's avowed policy of reengagement with India, which it considers its own turf. The Modi government's decision to cancel talks last week — after Sharif's risky venture to attend the Indian PM's swearing-in — will have only reinforced the military's propagation of that being no more than lopsided appeasement, making it even more difficult for Sharif to break free.

But what has contributed to Sharif's weakening hold on power is the ill-advised dim view of Imran Khan's widely perceived genuine demands for vote verification. Sharif ignored the deafening crescendo and may yet come to regret letting hubris get the better of his judgment.

In an ironical twist, Sharif is now seeking erstwhile arch foe Zardari's help to ward off the threat to his reign posed by Khan less than two years after Sharif's younger brother publicly vowed to drag the then-president through the streets of Lahore "to recover looted wealth" during a public meeting.

Zardari however, carries the reputation of being the shrewdest politician in Pakistan, and may extract a price for his support that helps revive the fortunes of his struggling party. If that happens, it would nullify to a large extent the PTI chief's diehard struggle against tremendous odds for poll reforms.  

The PTI has meanwhile resigned its seats in the national parliament, and if it goes the whole nine yards in quitting provincial legislatures as well, it will lead to a newer crisis even though theoretically, the PML-N can swell its ranks by winning most of the vacant seats in the bye-polls.  

But coping with an enraged Khan, who will then have nothing to lose, will be a different ballgame altogether. The PML-N is already reluctant with its parliamentary speaker saying he was in no hurry to accept the resignations.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely his and not of Times of Oman.


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