ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Reeling from clashes with the judiciary and hobbled by media restrictions linked to the powerful military, Pakistan’s ruling party’s once-wide path to retaining power is narrowing ahead of a general election this summer.
In the past year, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party has seen a prime minister - its founder Nawaz Sharif - and foreign minister both ousted by the courts, while its finance minister, charged with corruption, fled the country. On Sunday, a gunman shot and wounded its interior minister. [LINK]
All of this comes before another court ruling due next month that could send Sharif to jail for 14 years over a corruption case he says is a “conspiracy” against him.
An alleged religious extremist has been arrested over the gun attack on Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal.
That appears unrelated to PML-N’s wider problems with the military and judiciary - both of whom deny pursuing a political agenda. But the assassination attempt adds to a growing list of woes afflicting a party that less than a year ago was deemed a shoo-in for another five-year term.
Such a series of body blows suggests the PML-N is unlikely to repeat its success at the 2013 election, which left it with a majority in the national assembly, with most analysts predicting a hung parliament that will usher in a coalition government.
“All these other issues that are thrown up just distract the party from doing what it needs to do in an election,” said Huma Yusuf, a columnist and Wilson Center Global Fellow. “It makes it an unequal playing field.”
PML-N’s main challenge is expected to come from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by cricket hero-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has promised a radical change for the poor if he is elected as premier.
Sharif, a three-time prime minister whose second term was cut short by a bloodless military coup in 1999, has cast the electoral campaign as a battle to protect Pakistan’s fragile democracy after a decade of uninterrupted civilian rule.
While no-one is suggesting the army wants to outright seize power again, PML-N insiders say Sharif’s relationship with the generals is in tatters and accuse shadowy military networks of working with the judiciary to weaken the party.
Sharif on Thursday said “aliens”, a typical coded reference to the military establishment, had been calling PML-N lawmakers and pushing them to abandon the party or join PTI. The lawmakers were threatened with corruption cases being opened against them if they disobeyed, he said.
The military, which did not respond to a request for comment, has strongly denied interfering in politics.
PML-N officials accuse the military of using its muscle to arm-twist the media, as TV channels at times mute the sound on Sharif and his allies if they criticize the judiciary or the military. Newspapers have also omitted Sharif comments on those topics.
Geo TV, Pakistan’s most popular station, was taken off the air across much of the country at the end of March and only resumed coverage in April after striking a deal with military representatives to cease favorable coverage of Sharif and stop any criticism of the Supreme Court and the “establishment”, according to two officials who work at the station’s media group. Geo said it was committed to an independent editorial policy.
PML-N has tried to circumvent the restrictions by focusing on social media, livestreaming all rallies on Facebook and spreading its messages on WhatsApp and Twitter.
Analysts say the party is also hamstrung by internal divisions.
Sharif is yet to fully throw his weight behind his brother Shehbaz Sharif, who is the PML-N president and favorite to replace current Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. In the dynastic world of Pakistani politics, that has prompted speculation Nawaz fears his daughter and presumed heir Maryam would lose out in a future succession battle to Shehbaz’s son, Hamza.
Another internal debate is over whether to take a more conciliatory line with the military and judges.
One PML-N minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while Sharif’s tone has hardened in recent months, ties with the military establishment would have to be repaired if the party was to govern again.
“The largest political force in the country — PML-N — should not be at loggerheads with both the judiciary and the army,” he said. “All sides need to let go of their ego and come together for the good of the country.”
Pakistan’s judges have denied singling out Sharif or the PML-N, and instead say they are enforcing accountability, while Sharif’s critics accuse the veteran leader of making up excuses to try to evade justice over corruption.
Two serving PML-N ministers are facing contempt of court charges, while former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar went into exile in London mid-way through a corruption trial.
Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, a Sharif loyalist, was removed from parliament by a lower court in late April as he was deemed not “honest” under a constitutional provision that the Supreme Court also used to oust Sharif. The courts said both men did not declare salaries drawn from United Arab Emirates companies, an allegation they both dispute.
Sharif has portrayed his party as a victim of interference from other state institutions, while accusing Khan of being a pawn of the military, a charge Khan vehemently denies.
Despite the series of setbacks, Sharif is still drawing sizeable crowds at rallies, and a nationwide poll conducted in March by Gallup Pakistan showed PML-N had a 12 point lead over PTI.
The party’s fate will be largely decided by how it performs in the vast Punjab province, long a PML-N stronghold that returns 143 of the 272 directly contested seats in the National Assembly.
Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a PML-N senator who is on the campaign trail with Sharif and Shehbaz, said PML-N’s message was resonating with voters who see signs of economic progress in infrastructure projects, from six-lane highways and bus transport systems to power stations, including vast projects funded by Beijing as part of China’s Belt and Road intuitive.
PML-N also boasts a well-oiled electoral machine built over many decades in Punjab, where Sharif was chief minister in the 1980s and where in the same role Shehbaz has built a strong reputation as a competent administrator since 2008.
But PTI leader Khan, whose stock has risen since Sharif’s ouster, believes the path to victory in Punjab will be through so-called “electables”, wealthy and largely fickle politicians who carry large rural vote banks due to their status as feudal lords, tribal chieftains and heads of various clans.
At least seven lawmakers in southern Punjab have switched allegiance away from PML-N to PTI this week, and Khan has forecast a flood of defections once the electables see PML-N is unlikely to be on the winning side.
“The PML-N grip is breaking as we speak,” Khan said.
Additional by Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI and Asif Shahzad in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Drazen Jorgic