By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Is Sharif’s arrest a blessing in disguise for PML-N ahead of Pakistan elections?

July 15, 2018

TEHRAN - A week after being sentenced to 11- year prison term by an accountability court in the Avenfield properties case, the deposed Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif and daughter Maryam Nawaz were arrested upon their arrival in Lahore on Friday night.

The father-daughter duo were whisked away from the aircraft and transferred to Islamabad in a special plane. A helicopter was waiting at the Islamabad airport to take them to Adiala Jail in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, close to army headquarters.

The former prime minister’s audacious decision to return to Pakistan to face the charges, less than two weeks before the country goes to polls, has become a subject of animated debate on prime-time TV shows and newspaper columns in Pakistan. The seasoned political strategists in the country are weighing the pros and cons of his decision. Nobody is quite sure whether the decision is based on profound wisdom or sheer foolhardiness, whether the risk is calculated or miscalculated.

While Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was sentenced to a total of 11 years in jail, his daughter Maryam Nawaz was given seven-year prison term in the same case. The verdict, which came ahead of general election in Pakistan, has dealt a heavy blow to PML-N’s chances to regain power. However, some analysts believe the decision can prove a blessing in disguise for the party, considering the massive sympathy wave it can generate in the rural belt.

Despite the unsavory turn of events, Sharif has managed to put up a tough front. After the verdict last week, Sharif vowed to return to Pakistan to “face prison”. Referring to the court sentence, he said he was being “punished for turning the course of Pakistan's 70-year history”. “I will continue my struggle till the people of Pakistan are freed from the slavery imposed on them by some generals and judges,” he said, firing a salvo at the country’s military leadership, which is believed to be more powerful in some matters than the political leadership.

The verdict had been announced. Sharif knew he was not going to escape the clutches of law. Absconding and hiding somewhere in UK would have spelt doom for his political career. So, a seasoned campaigner that he is, Sharif decided to turn an adversity into an opportunity, by going home and facing the jail. In countries like Pakistan and India, victim card can turn around your political fortunes overnight. The choice in front of the deposed premier was clear: to run the gauntlet and play his card well.  That is what he did.

Speaking to media persons on his way back home, Sharif said his resolve cannot be shaken. “There are blockades everywhere. People have been arrested and they are being given the message to not come to the airport,” he said, asserting that the elections did not remain credible and the results would not be acceptable. Again, these are the words of an old warhorse who despite being wounded knows how to outdo and overtake others.

With elections just ten days away, Sharif and Maryam cannot campaign for their party, but former’s brother Shahbaz Sharif has been vigorously raising the issue of ‘injustice’ done to Sharif in PML-N’s election rallies. He has termed the verdict “flawed, politically motivated and with glaring loopholes”, and said that “history will remember it in black words.” How history will remember this verdict depends largely on PML-N’s fate in this election.

The one man who must be rejoicing right now is Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, whose party has lately emerged as a force to reckon with. PTI has a strong political rivalry with PML-N and Imran Khan had single-handedly led the crusade against Nawaz Sharif government, calling it corrupt and incompetent. After the verdict was announced last week, jubilant scenes were witnessed in PTI’s election rallies as supporters expressed hope of clean-sweeping the upcoming election.

Meanwhile, PML-N supporters, who were deterred from going to airport to receive their leader, have vowed to carry out country-wide rallies in the run up to July 25 elections. They know that the election result will determine the real fate of their leader. Whether Sharif’s term in Adiala Jail will be short or long will be decided on July 25. So, it is still too early for Imran Khan’s PTI to celebrate.

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