Kings and kingmakers in Pakistan
The Pakistan general election, 2018, is now well and truly in its home stretch. The D-Day, July 25, is only days and hours away. But as the polling date gets nearer, the campaign gets ever more raucous and nasty. There has never been a dearth in Pakistani politics of politicos hurling abuses at their opponents publicly and washing each other’s dirty linen out in the open. Pundits have long ago pontificated that name calling in public is an endemic attribute of Pakistan’s infantile feudal culture, with a chokehold over politics.
Be that as it may, this election campaign is so vituperative and vicious that it surprises even those who thought they knew the Pakistani politics’ Byzantine labyrinths and intrigues inside out. It’s an all- out, no-holds-barred war of words, nothing short of that. So poisonous is the language and choice of words by some campaigning stars, including Imran Khan, the idol of millions, youth in particular, that Pakistan’s Election Commission had to summon some stalwarts and ask them to tone down their rhetoric and be more civilised in their public pronouncements and campaign speeches.
The vicious muck-slinging campaign of dragging their rivals’ names through mud started with the acolytes of disgraced—and now imprisoned—former PM Nawaz Sharif. They got into the business of hurling abuses at Nawaz’s detractors and castigating them for, in their perception, being votaries of the much-reviled Pakistani ‘establishment’. Imran Khan was in their crosshairs in particular. They insinuated that he was a blue-eyed boy of the establishment and a Trojan horse of the generals who wanted him as the next leader of Pakistan because they could manage him much better than Nawaz; ‘pre-poll-rigging,’ as they dubbed and decried it became their favourite battle cry.
Observers were prepared to dismiss the bile of Nawaz’s cohorts as a symptom of deep anger and frustration triggered by their leader’s humiliation and disgrace. They thought it would lose its sting once Nawaz and his controversial daughter, Maryam, returned to Pakistan to inspire their party’s campaign and channel it into a more positive frame.
However, Nawaz’s unexpected return home seems to have had no salutary impact on the hate campaign his aficionados have been waging in his name.
Most Pakistani pundits, including this scribe, didn’t expect Nawaz to return. They thought he would not come back to face imprisonment as he had already been convicted in absentia. But against all odds he did return and was promptly taken into custody.
But if Nawaz had taken the calculated risk of putting himself in harm’s way in the expectation that the gamble would reap rich dividends for his party’s election campaign then his gamble doesn’t seem to have paid off, at least not yet.
There was, to begin with, no hero’s welcome for him on his return to the home shores. The security establishment made sure that there was no welcoming crowd waiting for him at Lahore’s airport, from where he was quickly whisked off to Islamabad’s notorious Adiala Jail. He has been back for a week now but his presence on Pakistan’s soil hasn’t kicked off what his followers hoped for: a wave of sympathetic support for their incarcerated leader. That’s conspicuous by its absence.
On the contrary, his imprisonment provides his opponents with a smoking gun as evidence of his dismal rule in which his only ‘achievement’ was wholesale plunder and loot of the country. More grist for their mills comes from the free fall of the Pakistani economy at the end of Nawaz’s five years in power. The Pakistani rupee has lost at least 15 per cent of its exchange rate against the dollar, which is a damning indictment against Nawaz’s corrupt governance.
Likewise pathetic and lacklustre is the campaign of the Pakistan People’s Party, which has alternated in power with the Nawaz League over the last three decades. Under Asif Zardari, PPP, founded a half century ago by his charismatic father-in-law, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has become symbolic of politics of corruption and loot that has brought Pakistan to the present sad state of dystopia. The only ploy left to Zardari is the Bhutto name and so he has anointed his and Benazir Bhutto’s inexperienced 29-year-old son, Bilawal to carry the party’s banner by freely using the names of his mother and grandfather in a campaign marked by slogans and symbols.
Because the main thrust of the election campaign is person-oriented, there’s hardly any mention of party manifestos or issues bedeviling Pakistan. The only exception to this genre of personalised politics is Imran Khan who has been talking of issues in his campaign rallies and remonstrating that endemic corruption of governance has driven Pakistan’s economy into the pits.
Most opinion polls put Imran ahead of the pack. However, none is optimistic of his PTI garnering a majority of the 272 directly-elected seats of the National Assembly. How Imran would navigate his way to the top in a hung parliament is a question on everyone’s lips.
Imran may have distinguished himself as the most successful and charismatic cricket captain in Pakistan. But politics is a different ball game. A hung parliament would demand tactical manoeuvring and compromises, above everything else. And Imran, thus far, doesn’t have a reputation for compromise. He has already said a loud no to sharing power with either Nawaz or Zardari.
And then there’s the ubiquitous elephant in the room: the dreaded ‘establishment’ with its unenviable reputation of making and breaking elected governments. How would Imran tackle this 10-ton gorilla? Rare would be the pundit prepared to stick their neck out and guess publicly.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat