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Back from the brink?

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Police use tear gas and batons to disperse supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, headed by cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, en route to Islamabad at Hazro, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. Pakistani police launched a nation-wide crackdown overnight, arresting at least 1,500 supporters of Khan ahead of an opposition rally planned later this week in Islamabad, officials said Monday. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)


ALL focus has now shifted to a five-member bench of the Supreme Court to break the impasse over the Panama scandal. It is, indeed, a serious challenge for the country’s apex court to deal with. The issue has generated a political maelstrom threatening to sweep away the current system of politics.

After resisting earlier, Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali has finally decided to intervene as other concerned state institutions failed to act on the scandal that involves the family of the prime minister. The outcome of this case will determine the future course of this country’s politics. But there are still some serious obstacles in the way of bringing the matter to a close.

Although both the government and PTI have agreed on the formation of a judicial commission to investigate the Panama Papers scandal, will the two sides agree to the contentious issues pertaining to the Terms of Reference of the inquiry? The government and opposition have failed to reach an agreement on the matter over the past seven months.

In case of a stalemate, the SC will itself frame the ToR. Although it will be difficult to satisfy all sides, arbitration by the apex court nevertheless offers the only way out of the crisis to prevent any extra-constitutional intervention.

One channel reported that the court made remarks to the effect that any move to remove the elected government by force would amount to an act of treason. If true, this is very significant. A lot would, however, depend on the powers and composition of the proposed commission. A toothless commission with no clear mandate could further aggravate the crisis. The onus is now on the Supreme Court.

The PTI’s strategy may have worked for now but its battle is far from over.

Not surprisingly, the court’s decision has instantly lowered the political temperature, with Imran Khan calling off the protest march. He can rightly claim it as a victory for his relentless campaign for an impartial investigation into the scandal. There is no doubt that the court was forced to intervene and shed its cautious stance because of the seriousness of the situation.

The PTI’s strategy may have worked for now but its battle is far from over. The events of the last few days and the ruthless use of force raise questions about the government’s recklessness in dealing with a serious political crisis that required a more prudent approach.

It is a fact that the issue of the Panama investigations could not be resolved earlier, largely because of the intransigence of the government and its arrogance that blocked any compromise on setting up a judicial commission and working out its mandate. The paralysis of other state institutions responsible for investigation into financial charges also compounded the crisis. The government had certainly no other choice but to agree to the SC suggestion.

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But there must be some apprehensions in the government about whether or not the investigations would largely focus on the first family as demanded by the opposition parties. Its other concern may be on the timeline regarding the completion of the investigations. The perception of a moral victory for the PTI does not augur well for the Sharif government.

Imran Khan may have never been able to lock down the capital but a panicked administration has done exactly that. There is reason for Nawaz Sharif losing his nerve. It is the citadel of his political power that was at stake. What makes Imran Khan a more dangerous foe is that he threatens to split the Punjab establishment — the real power behind Sharif’s political hold in the province for more than three decades.

The PTI had already breached the PML-N bastion when it emerged as a major force in the 2013 elections. The Panama Papers scandal and Sharif’s increasingly estranged relations with the military provided the party an opportunity to make a further dent in the PML-N’s power base. The battlefield is Punjab; some political observers describe it as the battle for GT Road, saying that this would ultimately decide the outcome of the power struggle.

Notwithstanding his government’s ouster by a military coup in 1999, Sharif’s support among the civil bureaucracy, judiciary and other power elites in the province had not eroded. Hence his party’s return to the corridors of power after the 2008 elections was never a problem.

In the 2013 elections, the party managed to recapture power at the centre purely on the basis of its support in Punjab, overcoming the tough PTI challenge. The elections, however, exposed the emerging fault line within the provincial power elite that in the past had stood fully behind Sharif in the power struggle with the PPP. He cannot take the support of the Punjab establishment for granted anymore with the rise of another Punjab-based party as an alternative. Although the PTI swept to power in KP, Punjab has remained its primary focus.

Imran Khan’s relentless pursuit of power and indiscriminate attack on state institutions may have alienated some of his supporters in the establishment but there is still sizeable backing for him. The Panama leaks and the worsening civil-military relations opened up a new opportunity for Imran Khan to make a fresh assault on the capital.

But Sharif did not allow free passage to the PTI troopers this time; instead, he adopted a strategy of offensive defence. Meanwhile, he has tried to defuse the tension with the military over a news leak regarding a major security meeting by sacrificing the information minister and promising to take action against the ‘culprits’. That may never have happened if the issue had not become so complicated with the government insisting that it was a “fabricated story”.

The impending transition in the army’s leadership has perhaps given him some confidence to drag his heels on the issue. Although the political tension has eased now, the ongoing political confrontation is not over yet. These are certainly testing times for Sharif. The next few months are critical. Many a future, including his, hang in the balance.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn November 2nd, 2016

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