PML-N’s 10 U-turns in 10 weeks – The Express Tribune

On March 28th, erstwhile opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif tabled a no-confidence motion against then prime minister Imran Khan. A lot has changed in the country since then. Shehbaz is now the prime minister backed by a diverse coalition of over a dozen political parties, and Imran is out on the streets galvanising the masses. The most notable change, however, has been in the stance of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) on several key issues. The party’s principled positions have transformed unrecognisably almost overnight, leaving bewildered supporters wondering if they have been taken for a ride, yet again.
Last week saw a historic increase in fuel prices in Pakistan. The largest ever increase means petrol is now Rs209 and change per litre in the country. There are several possible justifications: rising international fuel prices, burgeoning fiscal deficit, conditionalities from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What is hard to explain, however, is the very recent position taken by the PML-N’s bigwigs on fuel prices in the country. It was only in February when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government had increased fuel prices by Rs10-12 that the chief economic strategists of the PM-LN – both Ishaq Dar and Miftah Ismail – had taken the then government to task for the “unaffordable prices”. Now that the country has witnessed a near 40% percent increase in petrol price in a week, one must ask why both Ismail and Dar have changed their minds about what is affordable to the people of Pakistan.
Since 2017, PML-N had fashioned a narrative around "Vote ko izzat do" (respect the vote). For years, the party targeted the establishment’s key figures in speeches across the country. Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s Twitter breathed fire against state institutions for their alleged involvement in politics. All that seems to have changed though. Leading up to, and after the success of the no-confidence motion, the party’s firebrand leaders have taken a backseat. Not only has Maryam’s Twitter gone incredibly quiet, recently she publicly rushed to the rescue of the same establishment leadership. 'Vote ko izzat do' has been shelved for now, to be used again as necessitated by political expediencies. Those who supported the party for what was believed to be its principled position on military’s role in politics, must be wondering what caused the change of heart, and if it had anything to do with the success of the no-confidence motion.
After the infamous 1988-1999 years of political degeneracy saw the country plummet to Changa Manga and other such forgettable fiascos, PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) appeared to have learnt from their mistakes when they signed the Charter of Democracy (CoD). For most of the last two decades, PML-N was seen lecturing the country on the ills of floor crossing, horse trading and lota-cracy. Clause 23 of the CoD proposed disqualification as the punishment for those involved in floor crossing. Yet it was through blatant use of shameless floor crossing that Hamza Shehbaz was appointed the chief minister of Punjab last month. Whatever happened to those lengthy sermons on how floor crossing has made politics an insult in Pakistan, is anybody’s guess.
It was less than six months ago that the PTI government had passed the State Bank of Pakistan Amendment Bill, limiting the government’s influence over the country’s central bank. At the time, the PML-N had called the bill an attack on the country’s national security, terming it an attempt to turn the SBP into a subsidiary of the IMF. In the last 10 weeks, however, while there have been attempts to amend the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) laws and introduce electoral reforms, no such alacrity has been shown on the matter which a few months ago was deemed tantamount to a surrender of the country’s financial autonomy. Was all the propaganda about the SBP Amendment Bill also mere political sloganeering.
Less than three months ago, when the PML-N launched its “Mehngai Mukao March”, the party’s contention was that the PTI government should be sent packing since the common man could no longer make ends meet because of unbearable inflation. Less than two months into the coalition government’s tenure, Pakistan has officially witnessed the highest inflation rate in the last two and a half years. Prices of electricity, wheat, cooking oil and sugar have skyrocketed. The May Consumer Price Index (CPI) numbers – highest in two and a half years – preceded the fuel price hike, leading one to believe the worst is yet to come. Now of course the increase in commodity prices is labeled a result of global supply chain disruptions, a phenomenon recently discovered by the ruling party.
Throughout the 90s, PML-N’s electoral campaigns centered on the corruption of Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Numerous corruption cases against Zardari, created and pursued by PML-N, led to him spending several years behind bars. Even after the CoD, Shehbaz and some of his current cabinet colleagues targeted Zardari in the harshest of words for the latter’s alleged involvement in corruption. Now, however, Zardari is one of the key guarantors holding the current dispensation together. PML-N never cared to elaborate if all those allegations across the better part of three decades were mere smear campaigns, or if none of that matters as long as Zardari can help PML-N stay in power.
During the PTI government’s three-and-a-half-year stint, the erstwhile opposition exercised their right to peaceful protest on numerous occasions. Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March and dharna in 2019 was followed by the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) protest rallies in 2020 and 2021. This year saw PPP’s Long March in late February and PML-N’s Mehngai Mukao March the following month. On each of these occasions, the PDM parties were allowed to protest peacefully and the then government made no attempt to sabotage or violently disrupt the protests. Despite this, PTI’s Long March in May was met with the kind of state brutality that would put dictators to shame. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah proudly claimed that a total of 4,417 raids were conducted and nearly 1,700 PTI sympathisers arrested. Even the house of honorable Justice (retd) Nasira Iqbal was not spared. When the protesters reached D-chowk, tens of thousands of shells of tear gas were fired within hours. Even Pervez Musharraf and Ziaul Haq’s draconian martial laws failed to stoop to the tactics that the self-proclaimed champions of democracy unleashed on PTI protestors.
When in opposition, PML-N found it convenient to support media freedom. With less than two months in power, however, the party has supervised registration of FIRs against journalists thought to be critical of its policies. So far, Arshad Sharif, Imran Riaz Khan, Sami Ibrahim and Sabir Shakir have found themselves on the receiving ends of such FIRs. The allegations include abetment of mutiny and criticising state institutions. To say that this is a departure from PML-N’s recent position on media freedom would be an understatement. But the fact that the party still had to oversee and facilitate the registration of these FIRs as well as the ensuing investigation suggests how deeply compromised it has become in the process of dislodging the PTI government.
Less than two months into its tenure, the PMLN-led government has already registered bogus blasphemy cases against Imran and several other PTI leaders, has had opposition parliamentarian Shireen Mazari illegally arrested, and has had social media activists attacked and arrested for social media posts critical of the government and its key supporters. It is worth noting that not even Zia registered blasphemy cases against his opponents, a feat that the PML-N only took a few weeks to accomplish. The spurious nature of these allegations notwithstanding, in a country like Pakistan even fictitious charges of blasphemy are enough to jeopardise one’s life. The fact that the PML-N has pulled out the religion/blasphemy card against its political opponents quickly suggests the victimisation will only get worse.
The whole ethos of 'Vote ko izzat do' stemmed from civilian supremacy. Yet the party that campaigned on this slogan for five years, within two months legalised the screening of civil servants prior to their induction, appointments and posting by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Such brazen surrender of civilian space to the country’s premier intelligence agency not only weakens the civilian apparatus, it also controversialises state institutions. The move was in such poor taste that it received uniform condemnation from across the political spectrum, including from within the ruling coalition. One must wonder what the political expediency behind such an unconcealed capitulation might be.
Governments come and go. The PML-N will have to go back to the masses in 15 months at the most. If the past two months are any yardstick, no future campaign promises or slogans should be trusted in the slightest.
The author is a Pakistani cardiologist currently working in the US, who enjoys writing about politics, societal issues and healthcare. He can be reached at [email protected]
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