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Nawaz Sharif unlikely to return to Pak after arrest warrant, rebellion within party

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With court proceedings on fast track and with little hope of him and his family going unscathed, the options for the ousted PM are running out.

The noose is further tightening around Nawaz Sharif. More humiliation was heaped on the ousted prime minister last week when an arrest warrant was issued against him for not appearing before an accountability court. He is in London at the moment, apparently looking after his ailing wife.

Sharif and his children were earlier indicted on a litany of corruption charges. Although his Pakistan Muslim League (N) is still in power, there is a big question mark on whether he would return home soon to face the trial. His woes have exacerbated with a brewing revolt in his party ranks with his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of the country’s biggest and most powerful province of Punjab, leading the rebellion.

That has left the beleaguered leader with very few choices. With court proceedings on fast track and with little hope of him and his family going unscathed, the options for Sharif are running out.

But Sharif is still the most powerful political leader in the country at the moment. He has retained the position as president of the ruling PML (N) after the passage of controversial amendment to the law allowing him to hold the post even after having been disqualified from holding public office.

When he was ousted from power twice in the past, it was by direct military intervention. This time, the action may appear more subtle, but it is actually extremely devastating. The ouster came through a legal process and the military stayed in the shadows.

However, with the ongoing trial, the military’s shadows have gotten larger. The evidence against the Sharifs is strong enough to convict them, hence no need for the generals to come out of the shadows yet and wind up the game. Sharif knew it too, so he threw down the gauntlet hoping to stall the accountability court from indicting him.

His show of aggression may have worked initially to mobilise his supporters and win public sympathy. The ambiguous court judgment disqualifying him earlier helped him politically. However, he miscalculated the power of the judiciary boosted by the backing of the security establishment. His indictment last week dealt a serious blow to the morale of his supporters. His desperate last-moment attempt to get the indictment delayed failed. He thought he could sit out the trial, but it would not happen.

The move by some elements to install Shahbaz Sharif as the party head has certainly weakened Nawaz Sharif’s position. The message has been loud and clear: winning the coming elections is more important than taking the risk of the entire system being wound up, which seems inevitable in the event of a confrontation with the security establishment and judiciary. The division within the ruling party between the confrontationists and those advocating moderation and reconciliation is becoming sharper. This internal strife is proving more ominous for the embattled former prime minister and has narrowed his options.

Sharif, however, still has some cards to play. Even those critical of his taking the path of confrontation need him to win votes in the coming elections. While Shahbaz could bring stability to the party and help maintain its unity, it is Nawaz Sharif who is the vote-getter. The former prime minister can play this card to keep his hold over the party, but with the security establishment determined to keep him out it would be hard for him to do so for long.

It is evident that the military would not have any problem working with the younger Sharif and the current federal government. There are already rumours of some kind of a deal being negotiated between them. The recent statements made by the Punjab chief minister rejecting his brother’s policy of confrontation gives credence to these speculations.

But the big question is whether Nawaz Sharif will accept any deal that keeps him out of politics. Even if he is willing to compromise, there is no surety that it would save him and his children from being convicted on corruption charges. There is a strong feeling among some of Sharif’s close aides that matters are beyond repair.

Some others may still believe that the only option left to Nawaz Sharif is to continue with his hardline position and build public pressure on the judiciary. Despite his substantive mass support base, it is improbable his party can bring out the public on the streets and sustain this over a long period.

While the ouster of Nawaz Sharif has shaken the system, the outcome of his trial will change the political dynamic in the country completely. Much will also depend on how Sharif deals with the challenges within his party and outside.


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