Mending fences, building bridges

Two of Pakistan’s former governing parties may be ready to set aside their differences in order to oppose the ruling PTI, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai reports

Pakistan’s vibrant and often chaotic political scene is gradually witnessing a change as two former ruling parties are trying to mend fences in the face of the formidable challenge posed to them by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have been inching closer to each other, though their differences are still acute and they have no common objectives. The recent meeting between the PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and former Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, who is in prison after being jailed for seven years on charges of corruption by an accountability court, raised expectations of rapprochement between the two rival political parties.

Together with the ruling PTI, the PML-N and PPP are major political parties in the country. Though deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is bigger in terms of parliamentary seats, the late Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, now led by her spouse Asif Ali Zardari and their only son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is politically more important as it is in power in the family’s native Sindh province. The PML-N, with its base in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, is headed by Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. Shahbaz Sharif, too, is in jail on charges of misuse of power and corruption though he is able to attend assembly sessions and wields some influence as head of the assembly’s powerful Public Accounts Committee.

Though the PML-N is bigger in terms of parliamentary seats, the PPP is politically more important

Until recently, the influential Sharif family was facing the brunt of the government’s accountability campaign and waging a sustained legal battle to clear its name in several cases of corruption and misuse of power. Their woes have multiplied as other members of the family have also been charged in some of the corruption cases filed by the anti-graft National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

Having lost the July 2018 general election to the PTI and been forced to sit in the opposition for the first time in years in its Punjab stronghold, the Sharifs are struggling to keep their party intact and build a strong opposition to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

It appears that the Bhuttos, Pakistan’s other iconic political family, arenow on course to give company to the Sharifs in terms of their hitherto separate campaigns to fight charges of corruption and challenge the ruling PTI. Both have been alleging that the PTI government is victimising them for political reasons as their two families alone are the focus of the accountability drive. However, the government insists that the corruption cases were registered before the PTI came into power, and argues that the anti-graft bodies such as the NAB and the FIA, along with the judiciary, are independent and are neither dictated to by the government nor willing to take orders.

Ehtesab (accountability) has been one of the most popular slogans in Pakistani politics for the last several years and even military ruler General Pervez Musharraf used it to his advantage to win public support in the early years of his rule after capturing power in a coup against Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in October 1999. Imran Khan has been a crusader against corruption throughout his political career and he finally managed to triumph at the polls in 2018 by winning over voters weary of the ruling elite’s corrupt practices.

Imran Khan cannot afford to relinquishhis accountability drive after having promised ehtesab in almost every speech all these years. He has ruled out making a deal like the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), whichwas made in October 2007 by Musharraf with the self-exiled Benazir Bhutto, to grant amnesty to politicians, bureaucrats and others accused of corruption, embezzlement, money-laundering and other crimes committed from January 1986 to October 1999. The infamous NRO was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in December 2009, triggering a political crisis at the time. Subsequently, any unethical deal-making is referred to as the NRO and nowadays there are frequent speculative media reports that a similar deal could be made by the PTI government with Nawaz Sharif. If unsubstantiated media reports are to be believed, the cases against the Sharifs could be withdrawn under the deal, allowing Nawaz Sharif to go abroad in return for quitting politics.

However, this is unlikely to happen as Sharif has ruled out any possibility of seeking an NRO and Imran Khan has categorically declared that no such deal is being contemplated. Rather, the prime minister has made it clear that there is no law under which Nawaz Sharif could be sent abroad for medical treatment, as care for his diabetes, heart and kidney ailments is available in Pakistan. But a determined Nawaz Sharif has stuck to his guns and, on occasion, refused to be shifted to a hospital in Lahore for treatment, arguing that he is being denied the proper medical care of his choice.

Ehtesab has been one of the most popular slogans in Pakistani politics

In the latest twist to the situation, 69-year old Sharif was granted bail by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for six weeks on March 26, specifically to receive medical treatment.However, the court ruled that treatment was availablein Pakistan so he won’t be allowed to leave the country. It said he would have to surrender at the end of the bail term.

Nawaz Sharif has appealed against his conviction for making investments beyond his declared assets. Any relief given to him by the court is unlikely, given the animosity between the Sharif family and Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 30-year old member of the National Assembly, met Nawaz Sharif at the Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore ostensibly to enquire after his health. The PPP decided to send him to the jail instead of his father, former President Asif Ali Zardari, whose relationship with Sharif has remained bitter. After meeting Sharif, the younger Zardari expressed concern that the three-time prime minister was being denied proper medical treatment. While acknowledging the political differences between the PPP and PML-N, he argued that health and humanitarian issues should be kept apart from politics and dealt with accordingly.

The meeting was welcomed by Sharif’s daughter and political heir Maryam, who thanked Bilawal for his ‘thoughtfulness and kind gesture’ in visiting her imprisoned father.  The two young politicians, who are being groomed by their fathers to replace them as party leaders in Pakistan’s traditionally hereditary politics, are seen as serious contenders for top elected offices in future. However, their parties have mostly remained rivals and could continue on this path in future elections.

In 2006 though, confronted by the prospect of being pushed out of politics by military dictator Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhuttojoined hands in London to announce a Charter for Democracy to fight for a democratic Pakistan together and set up good precedents in politics. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was asked after his meeting with Nawaz Sharif whether the Charter of Democracy could be revived in the prevailing circumstances. It could be reviewed, he said, as to why it couldn’t be fully implemented and a new document formulated by consulting other parties. Solutions might also be found to modern challenges, as well as a workable code of conduct for politicians. It remains to be seen if any serious move is afoot to draft a new Charter of Democracy. Pakistan is, after all, presently a working democracy with a vibrant parliament, lively media and civil society, and an assertive judiciary. It has been able to manage peaceful transfers of power after holdingregular elections.

CRUSADER: Imran Khan has campaigned against corruption throughout his political career
CRUSADER: Imran Khan has campaigned against corruption throughout his political career

The arrest of certain important party leaders on corruption charges and the ongoing investigation against others is occupying most of the PPP leadership’s time that could be spent focusing on devising a new Charter of Democracy. Senior PPP leaders Sharjeel Memon, Dr Asim Hussain and Sindh Assembly Speaker Siraj Durrani have already been to jail and are facing cases of misuse of power and having assets beyond their known sources of income. Former Prime Ministers Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf are also being tried on similar charges and could be jailed.

But far more worrying for the PPP are the casesagainst Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpurof money-laundering huge sums through fake bank accounts. There have been indications that they could land in further trouble and even face arrest. The prospect of being jailed again, despite serving as President of Pakistan and accumulating huge assets,must be depressing, even thoughZardari has claimed he isn’t afraid of arrest as he has previously spent more than 11 years in jail. But his reputation would suffer a serious blow if he is convicted, as happened with the Sharif brothers.

Such a prospect could serve as a catalyst to bring the two families and their parties closer to protect their interests and join hands against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI government. Though the PTI leadership insists it isn’t scared of a combined opposition, the fact remains that the ruling party lacks a comfortable majority in parliament and controls the provincial governments in only Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. It could face a serious challenge if the opposition parties, particularly the PML-N and PPP, unite to agitate against it. Still, there is little indication yet that the people are ready to join such a protest campaign, even on the issue of accountability, less than a year after the general election.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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