Normally, parliament is the forum where political battles are fought. That is the democratic norm to which the PML-N continues to be publicly committed. However, Nawaz Sharif’ pronouncement indicates that the PML-N has jettisoned the parliamentary route and opted for flexing its muscles on the streets.
PML-N politics since Nawaz Sharif’s second return to the country has centered around an absolutely uncompromising one-point agenda -- the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry as Supreme Court chief justice. The judicial crisis is essentially a political issue and politics is the art of compromise. Adopting uncompromising positions is tantamount to creating a deadlock and that is precisely what the PML-N appears to have done. Certainly, the PPP has reneged on agreements and the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab is indefensible; however, a refusal to negotiate on a give-and-take basis amounts to allowing force to prevail over democratic processes.
The current crisis is stated to have been triggered by the disqualification of the Sharif brothers and the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab. However, the crisis can be said to have been initiated by the PML-N decision to participate in the lawyers’ long march. The PPP is in government at the centre and was in coalition with the PML-N in Punjab. In this context, the PML-N’s decision to march against the federal government of their provincial coalition partner sealed the fate of the Punjab provincial coalition government.
From the PPP’s perspective, the PML-N could not be expected to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. The PPP and its coalition partners in the federal government command a clear majority in the National Assembly and, from their perspective again, an opposition party in the centre cannot be allowed to dictate policy to the federal government, even if that party is the ruling party in one of the provinces. Two important coalition partners, the ANP and MQM, have publicly disassociated themselves from the lawyers’ movement with the former explicitly stating that the NWFP has other priorities.
However, the PML-N’s position cannot be dismissed out of hand, despite the questions it raises. The PML-N has chosen to place the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry above the imperatives of a serious economic crisis and the security challenges facing the state of Pakistan, with insurgents striking in Punjab as well, including in the heart of Lahore. It was perplexing to find that hours after the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore -- an event with international repercussions -- Shahbaz Sharif addressed a press conference and continued to dwell upon the issue of restoration of the judiciary. This single-minded pursuit of a one-point agenda to the exclusion of all else merits a closer analysis and explanation.
The answers to the conundrum can perhaps be found in the arithmetic of electoral results. It is pertinent to note that, despite being billed as one of the two national parties with Nawaz Sharif as a national leader, the PML-N has emerged in the 2008 elections as a regional party representing Punjab and Hazara. The party has no representation whatsoever at either the national or provincial levels in Sindh and Balochistan or from the majority Pakhtun areas of the NWFP. That PML-N has been able to carry forth its current campaign only in northern Punjab cities underlines its geographically narrow political base.
PML-N’s jettisoning of the parliamentary route can, therefore, be attributed to the fact that it does not command the numbers in the National Assembly and in the Senate to be able to possess an effective say in national decision-making. The recent Senate election underscored the PML-N’s marginalisation, except in Punjab. Its coalition status government in Punjab did provide it with a tenuous hold therein. However, seasoned power brokers know that real power rests in Islamabad. And having been in power for most of the last 30 years, Nawaz Sharif is fully aware of this reality. Of course, the PML-N can wait for the next elections due in 2013 to improve its electoral fortunes, but appears to be unwilling to sit out of the corridors of power for that long. This may explain its current confrontational extra-parliamentary politics.
The alleged unwillingness to remain in opposition for another four years also needs to be accounted for. Two explanations can be forwarded. One is that the Punjabi elite has held virtually absolute power since the military coup in 1977. However, the party configuration in parliament that the 2008 elections has thrown up has placed regional forces from Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan in a decisive position and they are asserting their claims on state resources.
Resultantly, the Punjabi elite is no longer in a position to use its hitherto near-monopolistic influence in the federal government to sway resource-allocation decisions. And having thrown its weight behind the PML-N, it now finds itself on the wrong side of the power fence. Thus, its backing of the PML-N attempts to create centres of power outside parliament.
The other explanation for the PML-N’s alleged unwillingness to play the role of the parliamentary opposition for long can be found in the ideological composition of the PML-N and its allies. Many of the stalwarts of the PML-N have previously been affiliated with religious parties. These parties have now also allied themselves with the PML-N in the confrontation with the government in Islamabad. The PPP, ANP and MQM are perceived to be committed to a Pakistan that is free from religious bigotry. As such, the religious establishment too can be seen to be unwilling to tolerate, for the next four years, a government that is not only unsympathetic to their cause but is out to curb their influence. They do not want to risk seeing their gains since the Ziaul Haq days whittled away. The battle lines are, therefore, drawn on two fronts. One divides the northern Punjab elite and the rest of the country; the other divides overt and covert proponents of varying degrees of religious theocracy and those who wish to see an enlightened society in the country. The present confrontation around Iftikhar Chaudhry’s reinstatement and the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab, couched in moralistic terms, are mere symptoms of a deeper struggle for power and for control. Which way the conflict settles will decide the future of democracy in the country and of the country itself.