It’s finally here: election year. Two thousand eight was traumatic; 2013 was exciting. Twenty eighteen is plain uncertain. Given the regional difficulties, Election 2018 may not even end up being the biggest event of the Pakistani year. But it’s the only thing that can be relatively easily mapped.
At this point, there’s no point pretending there’s an uber plan or overarching scheme. Too many moving parts, too many players, all competing to shape whatever they think democracy should mean for the rest of us. There are, though, some preferences evident.
The boys do not want Nawaz. Or Maryam. The more Nawaz tries to force his way back into the system, the greater the resistance will be. It’s an institutional thing that no Saudi, American or Chinese high official can change.
The problem is, short of cancelling the election — a direct takeover — there’s no way of guaranteeing that Nawaz can be kept shut out. So a lot of will depend on the path Nawaz decides to take.
Strong-arming Nawaz out of the electoral arena has already been messy and complicated and further manipulation will make it messier still. But there’s no incentive to back off now.
But then there’s no incentive for Nawaz to back down either. The fury directed at Maryam is key — it suggests a determination to wipe out whatever Nawaz represents from politics. If that’s apparent to outsiders, it’s sure as hell known to Nawaz.
So why should he compromise?
Compromise now and he risks being shut out forever. Burn everything to the ground and he and Maryam will at least have a more level playing field. An ash heap of a playing field, but when you’re a civilian you take what you can get.
That’s also the problem with this NRO silliness.
The assumption is that an external guarantor is needed to make sure that two sides that despise each other stick to whatever is decided. But if Nawaz agrees to sit out the next election and let Shahbaz take over, that creates its own new reality. And a new power equation that may be hard for Nawaz to later disrupt.
If the highly improbable reverse is attempted — the boys agree to letting Nawaz back in as long as he behaves if he wins again — there can’t be a guarantee that Nawaz won’t renege on a deal the moment he reaps the political capital of what would be his greatest election win.
It’s the reason the last NRO flopped: the incentives of both sides are fundamentally misaligned. An exile deal under a dictatorship can work because there’s an incentive — freedom from incarceration — and a genuine threat, the dictatorship. With a democratic veneer, the threat is substantially reduced and the incentive may actually be the opposite, i.e. to go to jail.
Nawaz chucked into jail while everyone else is pretending that there’s any kind of democracy in the country is more of problem for those who would have to do the pretending than Nawaz finding himself in jail.
The very chatter of an NRO is acknowledgement of Nawaz’s continuing political strength. If you’re Shahbaz or the boys, you should be worried. Of course, all of this — or a lot of it — would go away if the PML (N) loses the election.
At this point, nobody really knows. Twenty thirteen was a significant surprise. Even the PML (N) acknowledged that it didn’t fully expect a majority on its own. Two thousand and eight was a significant disappointment. The sympathy wave that the PPP had hoped for didn’t materialise. With 2018, all that can be said is Imran should be the favourite but it’s not clear that he is, and Nawaz and the PML(N) should be the underdogs but it’s not clear that they are.
The merciful path — for buying us all some time and letting the system to continue — would be if PTI lands itself as the largest party in the next election. A straight majority would be simplest, but enough distance from No 2 could also work.
Five or so years for the PML(N) to figure out its succession problems, for the PPP to figure out if it has a future outside Sindh, and for the PTI to figure out the constraints of power and to disillusion the electorate.
It really would be a merciful thing. And it helps that it aligns with what is known of the boys’ preferences. But since this is Pakistan, we can’t leave well enough alone. If you’re the PTI, you’re probably a bit worried too. Because you’d be aware that the religious right that is being cobbled together is also an insurance policy against you.
The foment on the ultra-right has thus far mostly been seen for what it’s achieved: put the N-League government under pressure and chipped away at the PML (N)’s support on the right. But electoral maths is fungible. What can be used to break or diminish the PML (N) can afterwards be applied as a brake on the option that replaces the PML (N). That would be the PTI.
Sure, an ultra-right cohort that makes its way into Parliament may initially be used to support the PTI if it falls short of a majority. But a coalition ally is also a few phone calls away from trouble and instability.
Especially if Imran starts to get funny ideas about actually running this place. Twenty eighteen is our most uncertain year in a while. And that’s just the election.