By-election ambivalence of Nawaz Sharif

By-election ambivalence
Wednesday, 07 Oct, 2009 (Dawn)
THE ambivalence of the PML-N on whether its leader, Nawaz Sharif, will participate in the upcoming by-elections, scheduled for Nov 7 barring a court order to postpone them, is very peculiar. Refusing to commit one way or another — the PML-N claims that it will participate in the by-elections, but Mr Sharif will decide himself whether to contest the Lahore seat to the National Assembly — the party’s public statements have given rise to a host of theories, each seemingly outdoing the other in terms of novelty. One of the latest theories is that a decade-old deal with the Saudi king that rescued Mr Sharif from a Pakistani prison is still applicable and that the Saudi authorities are demanding that Mr Sharif adhere to its terms, which purportedly includes Mr Sharif staying away from electoral politics until 2010. Perhaps it is time that the PML-N once and for all explain to the public what was agreed to between Mr Sharif, Gen Musharraf (retd) and the Saudi king all those years ago — clearly there was some sort of a deal — and put to rest all the speculation that continues to periodically arise and jeopardise Mr Sharif’s democratic standing today.

The other, more Shakespearean, theory is that Mr Sharif’s personal safety is under threat from certain quarters in Pakistani officialdom and therefore he is reluctant to take part in an election campaign. If true, this would be the scandal of the decade, and Pakistanis deserve to know the truth. But even otherwise, the PML-N has some explaining to do. As recently as the long march to restore the deposed judges in March, Mr Sharif was willing to lead a massive rally and, famously, demand that bullet-proof screens be removed so he could directly address his supporters. What has changed since then? The country is arguably safer than it was only months ago, and Mr Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, routinely spends long hours on official visits to far-flung areas of Punjab. Admittedly, politicians are without question a target inside Pakistan and Mr Sharif is no ordinary politician; however, the PML-N’s ambivalence has raised more questions than it answers.