Until General Pervez Musharraf became the first army chief to crackdown on both the principal political parties with the history — and capacity — of forming a federal government, Nawaz Sharif was widely accepted and viewed as essentially the military’s man, as was his Pakistan Muslim League-N.
Until the second ouster of its chief from the office of the prime minister in 1999 the PML-N — as opposed to the Pakistan People’s Party — was viewed as the military’s vehicle to dominate the parliament and run the country when the khakis were not themselves directly in power.
Between then, 1999, and now, 2015, there is a growing debate about the perceived fundamental transformation that PML-N has undergone in swinging from being pro-establishment to anti-establishment.
The principal arguments given in favour of PML-N, no longer essentially serving as a political vehicle of choice for Rawalpindi, include the fact that the party failed to be totally absorbed into the ‘new official’ PML faction that came to be headed by Shujaat Hussain in service of Musharraf, despite the fact that Sharif was almost sent to the gallows and forced into an 8-year exile to Saudi Arabia.
The PML-N serving as a noisy, vociferous co-opposition with an emaciated PPP under Musharrafian Pakistan was the first proof that PML-N was no longer willing to be someone’s handmaiden.
Then, midway between Sharif’s exile and his redacted but dogged PML-N, Sharif did something that was in stark contrast to the history of various factions of Muslim League, including Sharif’s own, in the past. Sharif sat down with Benazir in London to carve out what has served to be a counterpoint to constant meddling in the 1973 Constitution by the military — think 58(2)(b) empowering the president to dissolve the National Assembly and sack the government.
The resultant Charter of Democracy (CoD) co-drafted by the two former prime ministers and their PPP and PML-N, and other endorsed by provincial allies, mandated then to, in future, respect the federal and provincial mandates of all parties by each other. This was in sharp contrast to the principal parties — PML-N and PPP — destabilising each other during 1988-99.
This was significant because the PPP and PML-N have between them formed the federal government six out of eight times when the military was not directly in power (Ayub, Yahya, Zia, Musharraf) or coercively through their proxies (Junejo and Shujaat/Shaukat).
The PPP won general elections to form the federal government five times (1970, 1977, 1988, 1996 and 2008) and PML-N three times (1990, 1997 and 2013) in the total 11 general elections held in Pakistan. Here was PML-N joining hands with the historically anti-establishment and its sole principal political PPP to bind itself to a future where it would no longer serve as the establishment’s insurance policy against PPP ever in the future serving out a full-term. Surely, this counted as PML-N formalising its new credentials as anti-establishment and pro-pluralist democracy and pro-public interest politics?
But the proof of the game-changer of a pact surely lay in the proactive and aggressive implementation of it. Sure enough, when elections loomed in late 2007 (were eventually held in 2008, delayed by Benazir’s tragic assassination), the PML-N rejuvenated by Sharif’s aggressive posture of political defiance of Musharraf when he tried to land back in Pakistan but was forced back anew, and then agreed to contest election, which his party lost.
Both PML-N and Sharif were offered more than their share of opportunities to revert back to the divisive politics of the 1990s by helping destabilise and, if possible, turn the tables on PPP under the helm of Asif Zardari, the first time it was being run minus any Bhutto. And what did, much to the chagrin of the army under the perpetually sulky Kayani and scowly Pasha unhappy with PPP, Sharif’s PML-N do? It largely kept its end of the bargain volunteered in the Charter of Democracy by accepting the PPPmandate and allowed it to complete its tenure despite constant pressure on the Zardari-led PPP to buckle. Not doing this would be pro-establishment.
Fast forward 2015. After a tumultuous year in 2014 when the PML-N bore the brunt of a combative Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf of Imran Khan strongly suspected of support from the establishment to fell Sharif, and all but fell. The PML-N is reaping the just desserts of carving out a fundamentally anti-establishment policy through an equally magnanimous support of the PPP-now-in-opposition, which is repaying him to keeping his end of the bargain of Charter of Democracy.
And yet even after PPP under Zardari itself, despite its electoral mandate, refused to openly fight an aggressive establishment, and surrendered large domains of policymaking and political capital to Rawalpindi, the party cannot quite be accused of serving the establishment’s interests as a policy. This despite even the support again this month by PPP to the government in helping establish military courts.
On the other hand, despite its enviable record of indicting an army chief of treason for the first time, it is not quite easy to label PML-N essentially anti-establishment considering that some of the personal interests of Sharif overlap the military’s. Think military courts theoretically dispensing swift justice. That PML-N piloted the tainted project to amend the constitution and essentially dilute political rights in favour of an imagined superior military prowess of dispensing justice is astonishing. After all, who else but the PML-N’s chief himself — plus the current defense minister and information minister — has been tried in military courts, and found guilty.
There is something not quite right about a democratically elected — for a third time no less and ousted unceremoniously almost all three times by the establishment. For someone who openly professed in his election campaign trail he would turn the policy leaf on India, his surrender of the foreign policy a la Zardari to Rawalpindi — and now strengthening the establishment’s intrusion into political space at the cost of political forces — it seems a stretch to label PML-N anti-establishment. And yet, it is the same Sharif who sacked two chiefs of army, confronted another two and charged one with treason.
So which is it — is PML-N pro-establishment or anti-establishment? Perhaps one way to look at this is to try and understand that the PML-N under Sharif Mark III seems to be doing what PPP under Zardari did effectively: keep pushing the establishment where you can and keep enlarging the political space and yet also make sure to effect some cushion to the powers-that-be, enough to prevent the emergence of a critical mass of unrest in Rawalpindi that ends up suffocating Islamabad.
After all, if PML-N has survived PTI and a potent siege of its office of power in Islamabad, and created more space and time for itself politically, it means the PML-N still has a chance to demonstrate that as a representative of the Punjabi political establishment it is best placed to be the most effective counterpoint to a Punjabi military establishment. There is no need for PML-N to fall a third time to prove it is anti-establishment.