General elections anywhere may test the resilience of a people with their twists and turns. The impending Pakistani general elections, come July 25, are no exception. They could, in fact, end up testing the Pakistani nerves to the breaking point.
The election campaign is virtually in its home stretch with less than three weeks to go before the D-Day. The Pakistani electorate is by now well honed to the mind-boggling culture of electioneering; this is their third consecutive experience of electing their governments through the ballot box since they saw off their last military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, in 2008.
So, the people of Pakistan are well versed in the imponderables of electioneering, some expected and others not-so-expected. However, even the expected ones sometimes end up rattling their nerves.
The disgraced former PM Nawaz Sharif has long taxed the nerves of the Pakistani people in more ways than one. His trial in the Accountability Court for massive corruption and money laundering had been ongoing since last September under the vigil of the country’s apex court. There was hardly a doubt in any quarter that he would be found guilty because all that he and his children had done in their defence was an unending tale of lies heaped upon lies.
The law ultimately caught up with Nawaz and his daughter, Maryam, this July 6, when the court trying them found them guilty of having assets beyond their known means and sentenced the father and daughter duo to 10 years and seven years, respectively, in prison on at least four counts of fraud and corruption.
In addition to long prison terms, Nawaz and daughter have also been fined—hefty penalties of 8 million and 2 million British Pounds, respectively. The court also ordered confiscation of their known properties in UK—four expensive flats in London’s posh Park Lane—bought a quarter century ago with money looted and embezzled from Pakistan.
It’s a matter of conjecture if the British government would entertain a request from Pakistan to confiscate Nawaz’s properties and return their proceeds to Pakistan.
However, in the aftermath of Pakistan’s justice system finally doing in Nawaz and meting out to him and his thieving progeny the denouement they deserved, the speculation among the Pakistanis who quite expected this outcome is riveted on whether Nawaz and daughter Maryam will return to Pakistan from their current abode in London to serve out their prison terms.
They had gone to London a month ago with the trial court’s permission to supposedly see Nawaz’s long ailing wife, Kulsoom. They had given an undertaking to the court to return to face justice.
In his immediate reaction to the verdict against him, Nawaz has vowed to return home. However, he’s not known for keeping his promises and the people of Pakistan have no fancy notion of a sea change in his known trait. No surprise, therefore, that nearly 77 per cent of readers answering a survey by Pakistan’s largest English newspaper, Dawn, believe Nawaz will not return to Pakistan to serve his sentence.
Nawaz doesn’t have the nerve to undergo the rigours of imprisonment. When he was sentenced to life by General Musharraf in 1999, he cut a deal with his tormentor to go into exile to Saudi Arabia for 10 years. But this time around there’s no flicker of a lifeline likely thrown to him from his erstwhile Saudi royal mentors. The current Saudi supremo, a young and ambitious Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, has come down hard upon his own corrupt royals and is not expected to go out on a limb for Nawaz. The Saudi option is as good as done.
Shorn of patronage at home or abroad, Nawaz may find himself on the horns of a dilemma. In the backdrop of the looming elections, in particular, Nawaz may face a Catch-22 situation: damned if he does return to Pakistan and damned if he doesn’t. If he returns, he will be spending time in the slammer, if not for years then certainly for months with likely commutation of his sentence from the incumbent president of Pakistan, a hand-picked crony of his.
But if he chose to not return, the fallout of his chickening out will be devastating for the party, PML(N), he still espouses to lead. Up until now, his party’s core has held fast despite constant defections from its ranks. Most of those jumping off the sinking ship have sought refuge in the arms of Nawaz’s arch-rival and political foe, Imran Khan, whose party, PTI, has been growing in strength steadily and is expected to outsmart the N-League in its main bastion, Punjab.
However, a no-show from Nawaz in the thick of the electoral battle will, for sure, trigger a stampede of defections and turn the tide, massively, in favour of Imran who’s fighting the elections on a campaign slogan of ridding Pakistan of VIP parasites of Nawaz’s and Zardari’s ilk.
As of now, no pundit, savvy or seasoned, is prepared to wager on the election’s result. Most agree on it spawning a hung parliament with no clear winner to form the next government. A scramble for coalition partners will, in itself, be a maddening exercise, given the well-known ‘no love lost’ between the leading contenders to power among the current crop of leaders.
Not discussed too openly or explicitly in the thicket of speculation is what role Pakistan’s arcane ‘establishment’, blamed for managing elections in the past, will play this time around?
Whichever way the chips may finally fall after July 25, the curtain seems to have fallen already on Nawaz’s political career. The party is over for him. For the good of Pakistan, he’s done for good.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat