Feb 21, 2009

Endgame is near?

It’s not the endgame. Perhaps it cannot even be categorised as the beginning of the end. But the powerful salvo fired by a highly frustrated Nawaz Sharif towards Islamabad may change the course of events in the days to come. Already there are clear indications that the wedge between the Zardari government and Sharif-led opposition may soon take the form of an all-out confrontation.
In some ways it is vintage Pakistani politics, in which one year is too long a period in the life of an elected government, and destabilisation is the name of the game.
But then what has happened in the form of Nawaz Sharif’s outburst is also quite understandable.
The way some of the events unfolded in the last few weeks had in them many elements that were bound to alarm Sharif. The Sword of Damocles hanging over his head in the form of the disqualification case in the Supreme Court and the never-ending diatribe by a belligerent Punjab governor, were enough to convince him that his political career was being consciously undercut.
A constant pressure from the lawyers’ leadership for an open support for their latest campaign had also made it difficult for the PML-N chief to remain sitting on the fence. Still, very few in the country had expected him to open up his heart in a manner that looks like a virtual declaration of war with Islamabad.
However, observers say, these days nothing in Nawaz Sharif’s life happens without due consideration. So from the choice of the forum a gathering of top party leaders to the timing of a two-prong attack against the former military ruler and President Zardari, suggest that he foresees a long-drawn battle in the days ahead.
So if the attack on Gen Musharraf was to present himself as an innocent victim at the hands of the military commanders in 1999, and a peacemaker, the accusations against President Zardari of working for his personal, and not national, interest was aimed at projecting his own self as a real democrat and a patriot.
However, before going for the kill, say some analysts, the younger Sharif had taken a tour of Karachi and Quetta in an attempt of neutralise, if not win over, the political groups in the two regions, particularly the MQM.
Those close to Nawaz Sharif say the PML-N leader has little doubt that the federal government is determined to go for his, and perhaps brother Shahbaz’s, disqualification from electoral politics.
Such a move, say PML-N sources, may be followed by the dissolution of the Punjab assembly and imposition of governor’s rule in the province. If such moves bring a large number of PML-N supporters on the street to protest the actions, it may provide justification for a possible crackdown against the opposition.
This could also give an excuse to Islamabad to disrupt the lawyers’ long march.
It’s true that Nawaz Sharif has some genuine grievances against President Zardari and his government. He feels betrayed as the promises made by the PPP leader, particularly about the restoration of chief justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, were never honoured.
Senior PPP leaders may have their own reasons to accuse Sharif of making the restoration of judges an unnecessary point of prestige, but the point remains that President Zardari publicly, and in writing, made such promises, and never fulfilled them.
Then the Sharif brothers are convinced that the disqualification case is likely to go against them.
And the latest provocative statements by Governor Salman Taseer, predicting the formation of a PPP government in Punjab, is enough to convince PML-N leadership that the destabilising process has already started. And Nawaz Sharif didn’t mince words when he alleged in his speech that such ‘humiliation’ was being done at the behest of President Zardari.
But it’s still not clear what the former prime minister is aiming to gain by raising the ante in this manner. There are still no signs that a protest campaign in the form of a long march or a sit-in outside the parliament can bring down the government.
In fact It is not even clear for how long, if at all, Sharif can afford to stage a sit-in in Islamabad. Then the country’s most powerful institution, the Army, is still wary of his behaviour and is nurses apprehensions that his demand for the complete implementation of the ‘Charter of Democracy’ could undermine its authority and that of the Inter-Services Intelligence.
The attitude of the Americans is another unknown. It remains to be seen whether they would take the risk of supporting him in spite of his views about Islamic militancy.
Given all this, a Sharif-led campaign can give a major boost to the lawyers’ movement, but with very little sign of producing any substantial results, at least not in the foreseeable future. However, by raising unnecessary expectations he may just push the country to another phase of chaos and anarchy.
Perhaps one way to resolve the matter could be a public assurance by President Zardari over Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification case and a guarantee that the Punjab government would not be touched.
But if neither of the two are prepared to mend their ways, one will not be wrong to assume that Pakistani politicians are once again at war with democracy.

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