‘Panamagate’ refuses to die as the New Year has begun with new bench of the Supreme Court, which will start hearing petitions of Imran Khan and others from Wednesday. However, the new chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar, has recused himself from the case. In all probability, the outcome of the case will dominate the emerging political scenario in 2017, which even otherwise is the electioneering year and we will witness lots of political happenings in the next 12 months.

Both, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are confident of winning the case, but it is good that both will accept the judgement, at least this is what they say right now.

However, Imran Khan was disappointed when the previous bench, headed by former chief justice, Anwar Zaheer Jamali, adjourned the hearing till the first week of January, and said, the new bench would hear the petitions.

When the senior most judge, Justice Saqib Nisar, took the oath, he ended all kinds of speculations over ‘Panama case’, by keeping himself out of the bench. Whether elections will be held as per schedule in 2018 or earlier, the battle for Islamabad will be between the ruling PML-N and opposition PTI, the SC verdict on Panama will also determine the political career of both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and also of Imran Khan.

Imran, who had lost his campaign over election rigging in 2013 after the Judicial Commission findings in 2015, wants to win ‘Panama case’, as his chances of victory in the next general elections has a lot to do with the court verdict.

Defeat in this case will further reduce his chances of winning the upcoming elections, but a victory could give a new lease of life to his party and he could go into polls with high spirits. On the other hand, stakes are also high in the other camp. There’s a lot more than the political career of PM Sharif which is under threat.

Any adverse ruling would seriously dent his political legacy, as he often sees his daughter taking over power from him in future. But, the PML-N is ready to take the challenge, as the political battle between the PML and the PTI has now entered the crucial phase and political temperature has also soared.

The kind of language being used by both sides during TV talk shows and in public meetings also reflects rising tensions. The battle for Punjab is the battle for Islamabad. The PML-N has been ruling the province since 1985 and has retired General Pervez Musharraf not staged a coup on Oct 12, 1999, Sharifs could have enjoyed an uninterrupted rule. Musharraf’s era had created a split in the party and Chaudhrys of Gujrat and Moonis Elahi sided with the former president as an alley.

However, for the first time, the Muslim League emerged as an opposition party, unlike in the past when leaguers had the reputation of changing loyalties. But many who changed their loyalties during Musharraf’s period are now part of PML-N, something which went against Shairfs’ post-Musharraf politics.

Imran Khan, who also supported Musharraf from 1999 to 2002, not only regretted his association with him but is also seriously challenging Sharifs’ political supremacy now. Thus, in 2017, the battlefield will be Lahore, which since 1970s had witnessed major political transformation. Once it was the stronghold of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It is the city where three major political parties, PPP, PML and PTI were founded.

So, the city will witness one of the most crucial political battles in the next elections between the ‘might of Sharifs’, and the rise of Imran. Some PML-N leaders conceded that for the first time the party faced serious political challenge in 2013 elections in Lahore, and the PTI did jolt the party. “In a way it was good for the party, as competition always helps you correct your mistakes, said a PML-N leader on condition of anonymity, as he criticised some of the party leaders.

Now where would stand the other mainstream political parties in this ‘two-party battle’? The PTI has practically replaced the PPP in Punjab, and the latter may witness some important party leaders leaving it before the elections.

The decision of former president, Asif Ali Zardari, to take the centre-stage is something which had been opposed by many leaders of the PPP Punjab. They had even suggested to Mr Zardari to either stay away from the party or become the party’s ‘Rahbar’ (patron).

The only option for the PPP is the post-election scenario, as they are unlikely to stage a big comeback in near future. In 2017, the party would try to regain some of its lost glory in southern Punjab and sweep in Sindh including improving its position in Karachi.

While Imran Khan is confident that the PTI would retain its position in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, only an anti-PTI alliance comprising PML-N, JUI-F, ANP and PPP could pose challenge to the PTI-JI alliance.

Therefore, we may see hectic political manoeuvring in 2017, in the post-Panama scenario. But, for the first time, Karachi will be most unpredictable in the aftermath of a split in the MQM, between the MQM-Pakistan, MQM-London and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). Will this split help any of the three or parties like PPP, JI and PTI, is yet to be seen.

The year would determine the future political discourse for 2018. Thus, the visit of Imran Khan and his stay in the city for three days clearly showed that he sees the party chances and has decided to hold public meetings here in the next few months.

While there are little chances of any grand opposition alliance before the election, the PPP is at crossroad right now. The only positive response which Mr Zardari has got was from the PML-Q’s Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who met him recently. But, his own party’s position in Punjab and elsewhere is not much different from that of the PPP in Punjab.

The Supreme Court, since the historic lawyer movement, had taken some historic decisions. It has done what the successive governments and Parliament have failed to do, like holding of local government elections or population census on time as a constitutional obligation. In fact, they failed and put the burden on the SC.

While the mainstream opposition parties, led by Imran Khan, and even persons like Sirajul Haq, have stated that if they did not get justice from the SC, they would settle the issue on roads, i.e. agitation. For them, ‘justice’ means decision in their favour.

Thus, in many ways we have not only tried to politicize the case but also the judiciary, something which could have negative repercussion on the independence of judiciary.

The year 2017 will be the test of political maturity, independence of judiciary, autonomous Election Commission of Pakistan, constituted with consensus and the test of parliament to adopt consensus ‘electoral reforms’, and implement it before the next polls.

 

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