2017

By Arif Nizami

A seminal year?

Year 2017 is going to be the election year in many ways. The PML-N government, like its predecessor the PPP, could hold them in May next year when the national and provincial assemblies complete their five-year term

As the New Year ushers in, it brings a lot of fresh possibilities for Pakistan. In many ways it is going to be a seminal year.

One way of looking at it is perhaps it will be more of the same. This year will be no different from the past: the same old bickering amongst politicians and their collective failure to address the crucial issues facing the country.

Our ruling elites will continue with their self-righteous — my way or the highway — attitude. An important section of the opposition will, however, will keep on playing the zero sum game that has morphed into its natural instinct.

Year 2017 is going to be the election year in many ways. The PML-N government, like its predecessor the PPP, could hold them in May next year when the national and provincial assemblies complete their five-year term.

But most political parties have already gone into the election mode. The PTI has even started revisiting the process of awarding of tickets for national and provincial assemblies.

The PML-N has always been in the election mode. Its economic agenda and rhetoric has been to win votes from day one, rather than bringing any long-term structural or social changes in the body politic.

In this backdrop the year will see an incremental increase in political polarisation. Sharifs’ minions 24/7 spewing venom on the idiot box on one side and the Khan himself doing the same through his daily routine of engaging the media is bound to further vitiate the political atmosphere.

However, the wild card in the pack will remain the father and son duo – Zardari and Bilawal. The former president and PPP co chairperson’s return from self-imposed exile was expected after change of guard at the GHQ. However, Zardari surprised everyone by announcing his intentions of entering the parliament through a by-election.

The PPP co-chairperson and his scion speaking at Naudero on Benazir Bhutto’s ninth death anniversary have kept everybody guessing about their future course of action. Of course it is obvious the PPP with new infusions will play a much more aggressive role in the parliament.

It will try to outgrow the stigma of being a friendly opposition created so assiduously by the mild mannered leader of the opposition Syed Khursheed Shah. Nevertheless Zardari, known for striking a hard bargain, will continue playing the guessing game — whether he will initiate or join an opposition alliance against the Sharifs.

Of course the opposition can coalesce on the issue of Panamagate implicating the prime minister and his family. However the PTI and PPP are at variance on how far to go against the government.

The PTI chief has been struggling to get rid of the Sharifs by hook or by crook during the past three years. The Khan’s struggle has been confined to dharnas, threats of shutdown, and rallies. However, despite Bilawal’s threat to launch a movement against the government Zardari is not likely to agree to throw the baby with the bath water.

It simply does not suit him to derail the system unremittingly strengthened by the PPP government during its tenure through structural amendments in the constitution. In any case, guided by an instinct for survival, any extra constitutional change does not serve the PPP’s long-term interests. Unlike Imran Zardari believes in playing a decisive role in the parliament.

The exit of General Raheel Sharif after completing his three years term end November last year will have far reaching consequences during the year. His successor General Qamar Javed Bajwa ‘s imprint on policy and its implementation will manifest itself during 2017.

Justice Saqib Nisar has taken oath as the new CJP (chief justice of Pakistan). He is going to be heading the apex court for almost the next two years. Hence he will leave a deep imprint on the Supreme Court’s future course

General Bajwa is a different kettle of fish than his predecessor. An intellectual general with a keen interest in history is rather self-effacing. Unlike General Raheel Sharif he does not believe in building a personality cult or a halo around him.

One of his first steps after assuming office was to replace DG ISPR (inter services public relations) Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa by Major General Asif Ghafoor. But more importantly ISPR as per past practice has been reverted to the administrative control of the CGS (chairman joint chief of staff). Lt General Asim Bajwa as his image-maker was very close to the COAS. He was directly reporting to him.

Unfortunately the ISPR under a Lt General had become a mouthpiece of its boss rather than doing its mandated job of promoting the three services. It was well known in the corridors of power that the ISPR and the formidable civilian information machine were in competition rather than working in unison.

The era of projecting the army chief as an equal or rather superior than the civilian leadership and embedding stories through carefully calibrated leaks has thankfully come to an end.

This does not mean however that the new army chief will be a walkover. As the most powerful man in the country he will continue to wield a lot of influence and clout. A myth was deliberately created that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani as COAS played no role in combating terrorism and left the country high and dry during his six years of tenure.

The reality is somewhat different. Kayani laid the basis for an effective and result oriented anti-terror putsch through a successful Swat operation and ingress into N Waziristan.

General Raheel Sharif’s achievement was to bring the civilian leadership around a concerted anti-terrorism operation. However the Sharif government was deliberately not given any credit for creating a consensus and providing leadership to the Karachi operation and counter-terrorism policies.

Another fallacy that the job has been done and terrorists are now on the run was created to boost the morale of the nation and image of the army chief in the process. Of course a lot has been done. But a lot still needs to be done.

General Raheel Sharif scorched the snake but could not kill it. Under his successor the war on terror will have to taken to the next level. As General Bajwa himself has said that the terrorists have been defeated but Pakistan is in the consolidation phase now. This will entail going after proscribed organisations and the so-called good Taliban.

One of Bilawal’s four-point charter of demands is appointment of a foreign minister. But, more importantly, will veto power of the military on foreign policy remain like in the past?

The input of the security establishment in the Afghan, US and India policy will remain intact. No civilian government can ignore the military’s views in such matters of national importance. More crucial will be much needed changes in foreign and security policies to end Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation.

Nevertheless, it will be more inclusive rather than exclusive. In this context Sharif will have to soon appoint a foreign minister rather than keeping the portfolio himself.

Justice Saqib Nisar has taken oath as the new CJP (chief justice of Pakistan). He is going to be heading the apex court for almost the next two years. Hence he will leave a deep imprint on the Supreme Court’s future course.

He is no justice Ifthikhar. Thankfully so. But the PTI is doing a disservice to its own image by portraying him as a handmaiden of the Sharifs.

He is no walkover. However his first test will be the manner in which the Court handles Panamagate. A new bench, not necessarily headed by the CJP, will hear the case afresh.

Those who expect that the Supreme Court will send Sharif packing in the case, most probably will be disappointed. The likely outcome is appointing of a commission to probe the prime minister’s claims about source of funding of his London flats.

(The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today. He can be contacted at arifn51@hotmail.com )