Reeling from clashes with the judiciary and hobbled by media restrictions linked to the 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.
Last Sunday, a gunman shot and wounded its interior minister.
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 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 last 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 criticise the judiciary or the military. — Reuters