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The brothers’ next move

It’s too soon for the PPP to raise the glass to this ‘victory’

Written by Ejaz Haider | Published: February 27, 2009 2:30:41 am

A three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has spoken. Brothers Sharif,Nawaz and Shahbaz,of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz stand disqualified from holding public office or contesting elections.

While the verdict has ended the younger Sharif’s second tenure as chief minister of the Punjab,it would be too soon for the PPP to raise the glass to this “victory”.

The political intent of this ostensibly legal action is clear from the subsequent proclamation of Governor’s Rule in the province for two months. But Pakistan has always been the story of the murky area where law and politics intersect and law is either trumped or made to act as the concubine of politics.

Here’s how.

The PMLN and the PPP were in a coalition in the Punjab. Even if Shahbaz Sharif was disqualified,that,in and of itself,should have been no reason to change the political arrangement in the province because it had no effect on the headcount in the provincial assembly where the two parties were in a coalition.

But,and here’s the rub,it was Nawaz Sharif who,in his 1997-99 tenure,legislated then-President Farooq Leghari’s “accountability ordinance” into law. It stipulates that any leader disqualified from holding office also ceases to be the party leader. Brothers Sharif are therefore no longer leaders of their own party according to the operation of the Political Act; the PMLN,if it retains them as leaders,will have to re-register with the Election Commission,with someone else heading that party!

The legalities of the situation will of course be hotly debated and contested. Already there are arguments for and against. The central point in this situation,however,is that the intent behind the case was never legal; it was a pressure tactic used by the Central government to keep the brothers Sharif in line. When they refused to go along,the PPP pulled the plug on them. And it was easy because,given the Sharifs’ campaign for the restoration of the judges,the interest of the post-November 3 (2007) judiciary converged with that of the ruling PPP.

Predictably,the PPP has had to up-end the political arrangement in the Punjab through proclamation of Governor’s Rule,to prepare itself to put together the headcount necessary for taking over the province politically — which they hope to do with members from the PMLQ.

They could have pulled out of the coalition and left the PMLN looking for allies to sustain its government; but the younger Sharif might even have survived by reaching out to the PMLQ.

The PPP argues that it has nothing to do with the decision which has been handed down by the SC. Yeah,sure,say observers.

The PMLN is out in the cold now. It remains defiant but defiance does not per se mean a strategy to get back in the game. The party would need to translate its rhetoric,of standing by its principles even at the cost of losing Punjab,into a viable political strategy. It could play politics within the given,or take to the street and create problems for the government. The best strategy for it would be to combine the two options rather than opting for an “either/ or” approach.

Its shock troops are already out and this round of protests is not only likely to continue,it will become more vociferous. But the more substantive course of action for the PMLN would be to prevent the PPP from getting to the magic number to upset the political balance in the assembly which,while it stands suspended for two months,cannot be wished away or kept suspended for too long.

This is where the balance is held by the PMLQ even though that party itself is now not united. The Q-League knows that both sides will woo it. The question is: Which side of the fence will it choose?

Chances are that the PMLQ would opt for a new arrangement with the PPP. This is essentially what the PPP has relied on in playing its highly risky hand.

The logic of the move dictates it must win; the acceptance by the Sharifs to lose Punjab for a principled stand also means they cannot afford defeat or raise the white flag. The two sides are locked in mortal combat; one of them has to go down.

The PPP has made its move; it’s the PMLN’s turn now. The party has to catch the high tide or lose out on the opportunity to turn this moment of ostensible loss into an episode of political gain for itself. The Sharifs hope the sacrifice would translate into concrete gains.

That may work in the next election. But is the PMLN prepared to wait that long? How would it force the PPP into mid-term elections,a new political arrangement better reflective of what the voter wants? That would require effective street protests,enough pressure to lead the current arrangements to the tipping point.

This is now the challenge for the PMLN. Compelling the PPP to announce new elections also means a fresh round of political instability. The army would be watching,as would international actors who need internal political stability for Islamabad to address more pressing security concerns. It would be advisable for all to fasten their seatbelts.

The writer is Op-Ed Editor,‘Daily Times’,and Consulting

Editor,‘The Friday Times’,Lahore; the views expressed are his own

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