The PML-N has been vocal about upholding civilian values and supremacy, chanting ‘Vote ko izzat do’ (respect the vote) since 2017. The top leadership of the party had been vociferously opposing military involvement in politics online and in speeches. But the party’s stance against the establishment has softened after the latter’s supposed ‘neutrality’.
Recently, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif authorised the ISI to take over screening of government officials and party Vice President Maryam Nawaz publicly defended his choice to increase military involvement in government’s matters.
When PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif spoke out in favor of clemency for the man who overthrew his government in 1999, many were surprised.
Senior journalist and analyst Mazhar Abbas suggests it is possible that the military establishment is behind Nawaz Sharif’s willingness to let Musharraf return. He however added that there is precedent to believe that Sharif put differences aside on humanitarian grounds, recalling that he even visited Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairperson Imran Khan when he was injured during a rally. “Sharif was one of the first people to show up after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.”
Analyst Zaigham Khan says it’s all about optics. “From a humanist angle, you can’t take revenge from a dying person,” he said, adding that such a decision goes against you politically also, because then you’re no longer seen as a democrat or a human rights activist, and instead become a revenge-seeker in the eyes of the public.
“Ultimately, going after someone who is already on the verge of death makes you the very thing you had sought to fight against, and only fuels the narrative of ego-led politics, he adds.
‘No political party stands for civilian supremacy’
However, author and analyst Yousuf Nazar believes that its willingness to let Musharraf return has revealed that PML-N’s historic opposition to military interference has just been a political bargaining chip all along and holds no real weight.
“To be very clear, nobody, as far as the law is concerned, can stop a citizen of Pakistan from returning to the country,” he said, explaining that in that regard, the statements issued by Sharif and Khawaja Asif and the likes were basically meaningless, and instead served as signals to the establishment suggesting subservience.
According to him, when Musharraf was on trial last time, and the PML-N took a stand, the establishment wasn’t happy about it, and managed to pull Musharraf out, which created problems for the PML-N with the establishment.
“This time, they are waving a sort of white flag, signifying implicitly that last time we adopted a policy of confrontation with the establishment, which was a mistake that we will not repeat.”
He said that the selectors remain the same while the selected have changed faces, adding that based on these facts, there is no evidence that the case for civilian supremacy has progressed.
“It is now extremely hypocritical for any major political party to say that they stand for civilian supremacy, because clearly they don’t.”
Yousuf Nazar maintains that neither the chief of army staff, nor a former prime minister of Pakistan has the right or the authority to pardon someone whose crime was committed against an entire nation of almost 242 million people. However, not everyone thinks these recent developments are a contradiction of PML-N’s past stance.
But Mazhar Abbas notes that the PML-N is not withdrawing from the past and dismissing the cases against Musharraf. “They’re merely saying that they will let him come back if he wants, and he won’t be thrown into jail upon his arrival. He added that democrats tend to be more lenient than dictators, and unlike General Zia, who despite international pressure to pardon Bhutto had gone ahead with hanging him, they tend to lean on the merciful side.
Zaigham Khan points out that given the precarious state of the economic and political situation in Pakistan currently, the PML-N took the right path, as any more rigidity could have further damaged an already shaky set up.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether he should be allowed to return – the law seems to be clear on that: no one can stop him from returning. But what kind of coded message is being sent from debating his return and forgiving his constitutional violations?