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  Opinion   Columnists  13 Nov 2017  Too early or too late: The election conundrum

Too early or too late: The election conundrum

Published : Nov 13, 2017, 12:19 am IST
Updated : Nov 13, 2017, 12:19 am IST

The court, though, is constrained by its institutionally apolitical role — get goaded into politics and it’s the politician who can take advantage.

Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)
 Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

There’re only three options. Elections on time, elections ahead of time or no elections at all. The puzzle is to figure out what suits whom.

In the chaos of this week, there was relief.The obscenity down in Karachi was the big, paradoxical relief: all that engineering suggests that the no-elections option is not imminent.

A judicial thunderbolt every couple of months until next August could be the most welcome of political gifts.

You don’t dive under the hood and rearrange all the parts if you know there aren’t going to be elections. May as well leave that messy business for after the coup.

But there it was, the kind of wild tinkering that the rest of the country sneers at Karachi for and Karachi shrugs off as of a piece with the rest of the country.

Terrified of Altaf and scared of the boys, most in the MQM are stuck exactly where they’d rather not be: unsure whom to turn to, to rig the next election for them.

Expect more convulsions in the weeks ahead. There are two other hints that the no-elections option has cooled: the unreported Islamabad siege and Musharraf’s pack of jokers.

The Islamabad siege takes aim at the PML(N)’s right-wing support. Coalescing on the Qadri execution and energised by an elections rule change that was quickly reversed, the newest entrants to the Islamabad siege club are noxious noise. What’s interesting though is that they’re positioning themselves as electoral noxious noise — cobbling together the anti-blasphemy section of the ultra right for nuisance value in elections.There’s little internal coherence, nothing resembling a manifesto and zero chance of this strangest of animals surviving long — but the animatedness suggests a belief in a game heading in the direction of elections.

And then there’s the Musharraf pack of jokers. Now reduced to being a caricature of himself, the only thing that seems to haunt Musharraf more than political irrelevance is a sense that he’s drifted far from the institution that made him. And the only thing more humiliating than putting together a paper electoral alliance would be if the no-elections operation materialised immediately after — for that would mean Musharraf didn’t have a clue what was imminent.

So hurrah for a week in which, in typically ungainly Pakistani style, we may have learned that the no-elections option has receded. But that still leaves the question of elections when.

The Nawaz camp’s preference has always been for elections on time. You can bet that Zardari having pulled it off in the last round, Nawaz is loath to leave him as the only civilian with that prize.

But the decision is rooted in something bigger: the Charter of Democracy. The lesson of the 1990s was that without continuity there cannot be stability. The ouster and the N-League succession struggle will have buttressed the case for elections on time — elections on time means more time for the N-League to sort out its problems.

But this week the elections-on-time camp may have received an unexpected boost: the anger of the court. Goaded into responding to Nawaz’s political attacks, the court may have unwittingly illuminated a path for Nawaz to claw his way back. Trapped in a legal vice from which there is only parliamentary escape — undoing the disqualification clause via a constitutional amendment or winning re-election and using the fresh political capital to carve a way back — Nawaz needs an enemy to fight. An enemy who Nawaz can show is fighting dirty and unfair to keep the voter on his side. The PTI can’t be that enemy because it is competing for votes. That leaves the boys or the court. Against the boys you can only go so far. They have the most tools and the biggest bag of tricks — and the advantage of the threat of wrapping up the system if a political enemy goes too far.

The court, though, is constrained by its institutionally apolitical role — get goaded into politics and it’s the politician who can take advantage. This week, the court reminded Nawaz that he can intertwine two clocks with separate countdowns: the accountability trials and the election clock. If the election clock is kept fixed at next August, Nawaz can merrily goad the courts into making the prosecutions look like persecution until then.

A judicial thunderbolt every couple of months until next August could be the most welcome of political gifts.A sympathy ploy that would set up a nice contrast between a politician just trying to deliver for the people and unreasonable institutions getting in his way. It could even help with settling the succession struggle inside the PML-N. It’s easier to rally around a leader besieged by the courts than under direct attack from the boys. But what’s good for Nawaz may not be good for the rest of us. The longer this stretches out, the longer the no-elections-at-all option has to materialise.

August may not be a lifetime away, but it could end up feeling like one. If continuity turns into a war of narratives, a dogfight that gets nastier and out of control, the potential coup-maker’s patience could snap. Early elections are the obvious safety valve.

But it can’t remain as an option forever. If the trigger isn’t pulled on an early election soon, it could become a non-option — because an early election at the last possible moment would be seen for the cynical ploy it would be.

In trying to get to an election on time, Nawaz may be setting us up for no elections at all.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, asif ali zardari