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International Relations and Comparative Politics

Former Pakistani prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif (L) is flanked by his brother Shahbaz Sharif as he arrives to address the supporters after his party victory in general election in Lahore on May 11, 2013. Sharif declared victory for his centre-right party in Pakistan's landmark elections on May 11, as unofficial partial results put him on course to win a historic third term as premier. The result represented a remarkable comeback for a man who was deposed as premier in a 1999 military coup and came after millions of people defied polling day attacks that left 24 dead to participate in the high-turnout vote. AFP PHOTO / ARIF ALI

Structural Changes and Elections 2018: We Will Be Mostly Fine

Nearly all is finally getting well in Pakistan.

The events of the last few months have spurred many an analyst to hypothesize that things are about to go to hell any day now and the government is in collapse. The truth, however, is far from that. There was never a real threat to democracy in Pakistan, to begin with, what we witnessed in the last few months was one stakeholder leveraging itself to get a more amenable structural adjustment. What do I mean by this? Military/Bureaucracy was mobilizing their assets to apply pressure on the government to come up with a better arrangement that is more acceptable to them rather than the current status quo.

The most significant part of this arrangement was the departure of the only national leader who can take on the military/bureaucracy structures in place that are often lovingly, referred to as the ‘establishment.’ Using a mix of media trial with judicial procedures, Nawaz Sharif was removed from power, and the way forward was cleared for someone else to step in his shoes.



As discussed on the accompanying podcast for this week, the military/bureaucratic structures prefer dealing with known quantities such as PML N rather than relying on PTI and even other assets like MML or whatever the terrorist turned political party they invested in recently. The reason they would instead work with PML N is simple; both sides know the dance well. They see the pressure points, they know what works and how it works. The issue has always been Nawaz Sharif, as he would either overplay his hand or underplay it. Coordinating with him in power has always been difficult. After multiple attempts in the 90s, the establishment figured that problem was not the PML N, it was just the N. Now that they have gotten rid of the N, they are dealing with much smaller personalities in stature and status.

The rumors of Shebaz Sharif being moved to the center to be the PM candidate are premature right now. But eventually will come true purely because acceptability and electoral politics require a Sharif to lead the PML N. As Nawaz Sharif is no longer a candidate, the next best thing is the junior Sharif who specializes in building a public profile. Moving him to the center gives the party the Sharif it needs, not the Sharif it wants. Shebaz Sharif moving to the center is acceptable to the military/bureaucracy structure because he is more comfortable to handle than his older brother. He lacks his brother’s persona and charisma at the national level. Shebaz might have built a reputation by disparaging his own MPAs in Punjab, but at the federal level, he cannot do the same with Cabinet members and MNAs.

More importantly, the infamous late-night drives with Ch. Nisar to the house in front of TOPS Factory in Pindi would be much harder to manage when Shebaz is the PM. In short, Shebaz’s stature nationally is not even 1/5th of his brother. He is more malleable and focused on his public perception rather than waging more significant battles like his brother. This is much better for the military/bureaucracy stakeholders than trying to get things done while the unpredictable and inconsistent Imran Khan is in power.

2013-05-11T135556Z_1_CBRE94A12PA00_RTROPTP_2_PAKISTAN-ELECTION.JPGI have always maintained that Imran Khan is nothing more than leverage or pressure on PML N. He is excellent at that just like Tahir Ul Qadri. In a democracy or for that matter any system of governance, players like TuQ and Imran Khan have a function. That function is to apply pressure on the mainstream party to keep it in check. It is never to become the mainstream party. Although, PTI has the potential to become a mainstream party and they do have a serious shot of doing so in Punjab, but that seems unlikely while Imran Khan is around as the PM candidate.

What we can expect is for PTI do well in Punjab but still fall short of the majority. Nationally they will play a much more prominent role in opposition. The chances of PTI winning in Punjab are much higher than them winning at the National level.  And if that were to happen, it would be an unusual structure whereby Imran Khan would yet again be sidelined while Shah Mahmood Qureshi runs the show in Punjab. In a way then, Imran Khan is the perfect pressure candidate, even when PTI wins Punjab. And therein lies the lynchpin of the military/bureaucracy’s way of doing things. There are people they can deal with and those they won’t deal with. The problem is the personalities that can get national ovation are those they do not want to work with, and hence we are left with situations like the one we witnessed for the last few months; a democratically elected leader being dragged into technicalities and dismissed on something that even the court failed to adequately explain.

The good news is, while our democracy may be weak, everyone involved is sticking to it and letting things play out. Democracy requires time and more importantly a reciprocity between politicians and military/bureaucracy structures. We are moving down that path albeit with a few hiccups.

We are mostly going to be okay.

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