The combination of the Supreme Court’s judgment on Nawaz Sharif’s ‘qualification’ to remain party president; its unprecedented ruling to hold all decisions of Sharif as party president including that of awarding senate tickets to his party members; and the Election Commission’s decision to not allow the PMLN to field its candidates for the upcoming senate election, cannot easily be gulped down as incidental consequences of unrelated legal or administrative decisions. First, many a president, prime minister, officer, and judge have been removed from office or their appointment declared illegal or unconstitutional in the past. But never have their actions and decisions during the holding of office been held void ab initio, even where they have taken decisions injurious to public interest. In comparison, Sharif’s decisions after disqualification from the office of the prime minister, were with regard to his own party matters not matters of government, state or public import, but were voided.
For months, political analysts have suggested that there are indications that the senate elections of 2018 will be sabotaged by undemocratic forces to the detriment of the PMLN, because given its representative standing especially in the Punjab assembly, it stands to gain an absolute majority in the Upper House. Much credibility was leant to this theory when arch enemy Imran Khan began to agitate for early general elections, followed by the bizzare toppling of the Balochistan government. The Balochistan foible was widely believed to have been engineered to deprive the PMLN of senate seats from that province, with widespread reports of harassment and terror used as tools to force change of loyalties. What lent vindication to said speculation were these two acts of the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, which appear to be aimed at political engineering. Consider: the senate candidates of the PMLN are a party’s candidates, and the party having seats in provincial legislatures has the right to field candidates for the Senate. By voiding the candidatures AFTER the deadline of Senate nominations, the Supreme Court’s decision being viewed as political and mala fide in nature by observers cannot be faulted. Even the smallest party that might attain a single seat in the senate would have been seen as damaging to the democratic project, but ousting the largest party from this democratic process is being seen not just as victimisation of a popular political party, but as travesty of justice, violation of political rights, and a fell strike on the federal nature of political representative system, given that PMLN would have gained the most senate seats from Punjab where it has overwhelming electoral majority.
In public perception, what drove the nail into the coffin of non-partisan decisions was the Election Commission’s solution to the unusual problem of what to do with the PMLN candidatures. As a leading daily’s editorial correctly pointed out – ‘ECP has opted for an astonishingly poor option’. The ECP was confronted with an unprecedented problem. The most straightforward solution would have been to allow the party chairman, who has the authority vested in him and who went to the ECP to do so, to re sign the candidates’ nominations. This would have fulfilled the so-called ‘technical’ problem arising from the Supreme Court’s decision. However, the ECP chose not to do so, gave no reasons and cited no rules. Instead, it opted to allow the PMLN candidates to register as independent candidates, stripping them of party affiliation. This creative solution has only served to re-confirm fears of a conspiracy of political engineering simply because now these senators will be free to join any party post their election, reintroducing the potential for what is locally known as horse trading: the facilitation of manipulation, bribery, blackmail and strong arm tactics traditionally associated with the establishment to bring popular leaders and parties down.
The angle that has not been discussed in detail at all, however, is the attack on the Punjabi polity, at the thwarting of its will, at its representation in the Upper House with these decisions. Given the senate is designed to provide parity of representation to all provinces, and PMLN holds circa 90 percent seats in the Punjab assembly, stripping PMLN senators of the party affiliation means stripping Punjab of representation in the senate. Should the horses get traded eventually, they will not be representing the will of this province’s MPAs who voted for them, nor by extension the will of people. Punjab voted overwhelmingly for Nawaz Sharif and PMLN, and Punjab will see this as the ultimate betrayal by undemocratic forces.
This situation becomes immediately reminiscent of East Pakistan breaking away to become Bangladesh after a horrific war between East and West Pakistan. Reason? The Bangali mandate given to Mujib ur Rehman in the 1970 general election was rejected by the Pakistani establishment, which then attacked its own East Wing to conquer its people. The similarity is as striking as it is dangerous. The widespread resentment of Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, and Gilgit-Baltistani polities against the establishment is no secret. Punjab, however, was its traditional bastion. Hence, the question arises, who cuts the last branch he’s sitting on left in the tree?
As if this were not enough, barely a day into this devastating blow to the province, Punjab government has been targeted via the notorious National Accountability Bureau (NAB). By carrying out the arrest in a humiliating manner of a reputedly professional, highly esteemed and accomplished officer of the Punjab government seen as close to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the powers that be have triggered the entire Punjab bureaucracy into a protest strike. As if on cue, the establishment’s pet Sheroo pronounced the officer a ‘front man’ of Shahbaz Sharif, promising an nth press conference to provide the ever elusive ‘evidence’ against the duo’s corruption. One has seen this drill far too often to not pick up on the pattern.
The government servant in question is nicknamed ‘speedy’ for spearheading and delivering on major, highly acclaimed projects of the Punjab government. This has brought government in Punjab to near standstill, endangering the final phases of key remaining projects. This too is being eyed with intense suspicion by the public of the province, especially in light of a remark by the Chief Justice just a few weeks earlier saying he would hold up the flagship Orange Train project if health and education were not fixed first. It was commonly perceived as judicial foray into executive space and a threat to disrupt governance.
None of this bodes well for the country. We have only just witnessed the Pashtun protests and the Swat protests that were an expression of resistance to the establishment and demand for political and fundamental rights. The use of the judicial and administrative machinery for political manipulation, engineering, and thwarting of democracy itself can trigger the largest province beyond the point that damage control can be achieved. This must stop. The people own this country and they cannot be suppressed forever from their right to rule themselves through their chosen representative.
The writer is a human rights worker and freelance columnist.