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July 4, 2018
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Is there a grand conspiracy?

Opinion

July 4, 2018

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For months now, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have sought to convince the Pakistani voter, the international press and, in less obvious ways, the wider international community, that a grand conspiracy is afoot to rig the general election scheduled for July 25, 2018 against their party, the PML-N. Let’s examine the evidence more closely.

First off, there is the matter of the party’s own internal coherence. Much to the chagrin of PML-N party stalwarts, this is now a party divided squarely between a pragmatic delivery wing led by Shahbaz Sharif, and a hardcore monarchist wing led by Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif is the senior adviser and patron-in-chief of both camps of the party, but he is clearly partial to the monarchist wing and seems to be working hard to ensure that he bequeaths the party to his daughter rather than the combination of his brother, and nephew, Hamza Shahbaz Sharif.

The dilemma for diehard democratists in Pakistan is obvious: they want to back anyone and anything that challenges the dominance of the military in Pakistan’s public life. Thanks to the ill-conceived, anti-progress and anti-democratic dharna enacted by the PAT, PTI and their alleged backers in the establishment, diehard democratists have sought to find the good in the PML-N since 2014. As difficult as this was for the diehard democratists, it was often made easier by the cheap, clumsy and often offensive displays by backers of the anti-PML-N forces in the country.

The Panama Papers helped simplify the dilemma for those who had to hold their nose while seeking the good in Nawaz Sharif’s third incarnation as prime minister. From the word go, the Panama crisis was badly mishandled by a combination of Nawaz Sharif’s laziness, Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s arrogance, and their gaggle of sycophants’ cravenness. By the time the Supreme Court decided to issue a harsh and controversial decision on the eligibility of Nawaz Sharif to hold public office on July 28, 2017, the die had been cast.

The Maryam Nawaz Sharif camp had painted the PML-N into a tight corner in which it only had two options as a strategy for the 2018 elections: burn everything to the ground and hope the Noonies are the least damaged by the end of the arson, or manage an in-house transfer of power from the newly-minted Maryam Nawaz camp to the long in-waiting Shahbaz Sharif camp. The Maryam camp has been holding a Molotov cocktail with the wick burning for months now, clearly in no mood for any transfer or change in the centre of gravity of the party. If there is, in fact, the grand conspiracy against the PML-N, the Maryam Nawaz Sharif camp of the party deserves the title of the grand conspiracy’s grandest conspirator.

Of course, in our Pakistani culture, it is rude to idly watch women try to undertake difficult tasks alone. No quarter in our country is made up of more chivalrous and valorous men than the military, but our judges, journalists, and public intellectuals also have plenty of gentlemen happy to lend a helping hand.

Some of the evidence beggars belief. Some major extremist movements seem to have been given cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) right before the election. First, the mainstreaming and taming of groups associated with Hafiz Saeed is a longstanding policy objective – did the first-ever electoral contest for this effort have to be in September 2017 against Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif? Second, did the political weaponisation of hardcore Barelvi assertiveness have to graduate from peripheral fear to mainstream reality during the countdown to the election? Third, was the removal of many names from the Fourth Schedule an urgent necessity with less than five weeks to go in the election?

These questions are made more urgent by the facts. Religious extremist violence has been in retreat since mid-2014 and the defenders of these groups claim that they are not the same as the TTP. This may be true. But it is also true that all of them represent significantly complex counter-extremism challenges that no one can deny. The wellspring from which they emerged was not a peaceful civil society movement.

The tipping point of violent Barelvi assertion was the assassination of a sitting governor of Punjab by Mumtaz Qadri. The Hafiz Saeed conundrum is now, from the CNN newsroom with Fareed Zakaria to the Financial Action Task Force in Paris, a permanent international liability for Pakistan.

There is no populist extremist wave. These events are inorganic. And they will only help the Maryam Nawaz Sharif camp make its argument about a grand conspiracy. But there is more.

After a short travel hiatus, the chief justice of Pakistan has been back in action, and more active than ever before. He seems to be driven by a messianic devotion to serving the country that has elevated him to among the most honourable and venerated seats in the country. I remain convinced that he acts independently and his passion for service to the country and its people is as pure as anyone else’s that cares for and loves Pakistan. But some of his actions and words also lend greater weight to the Maryam Nawaz Sharif camp’s claims.

Perhaps the most awkward situation for those that trust the intentions of the chief justice were video images of his visit to a hospital in Rawalpindi with one of the most controversial products of Rawalpindi – Sheikh Rashid Ahmed – in tow. Unless the chief justice now also visits public facilities with senior members of the PML-N, these images will be fodder for the PML-N’s claims.

Other examples of a blatant bias against the PML-N will also be used to buttress the grand conspiracy claims. Returning officers in various constituencies being summoned by people with the rank of major will feed the anti-military sentiment among those for whom everything revolves around the civil-military divide in Pakistan. The extraordinary arrest of Qamarul Islam Raja of Rawalpindi, combined with Chaudhry Nisar’s decision to contest elections on an independent platform with the ‘jeep’ symbol, combined with the applications of several contesting independents to be awarded the ‘jeep’ symbol – all point to at least some pro-Chaudhry Nisar bias, if nothing else. The steady erosion of PML-N candidates across southern Punjab may be organic, but the chatter about mysterious offers and threats is consistent, and probably above the threshold of easily dismissible allegations.

None of these factors substantiate claims of a grand conspiracy. The chief of army staff has a demonstrable track record as a democrat. The chief justice, notwithstanding legitimate criticism of some of his decisions, and his vulnerability to being quoted in the national press, has remained true to his promise as the guarantor against delays in the election. Most important of all, a grand conspiracy would require the army, the judiciary and the PML-N to work in lockstep. The PML-N has proved that it can’t even work in lockstep with itself.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has done too many good things over the last two years to allow individual acts to undermine the electoral process at this late stage. It needs the support of the army leadership and the chief justice to help address challenges to the fairness, freeness and credibility of the elections. The army and intelligence services must strenuously focus on providing security for the election, and any overzealous officers must be held to account. The returning officers must be reminded of their specific administrative duties, and must ensure they remain impartial.

Pakistan will benefit greatly from a free and fair election. Its enemies will benefit from any confusion. We are less than a month away now. The burden of responsibility and the arc of history must weigh heavily on the chief justice and the COAS. Now is their time. The nation prays for them and prays with them.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

www.mosharrafzaidi.com

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