KARACHI: A landmark verdict on July 6 has sent ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to serve 10 and his daughter Maryam seven years in Rawalpindi’s Adiala prison. The verdict not only swept Nawaz but the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in its entirety off its feet.
The party, which enjoyed a simple majority at the centre and in Punjab, has suffered back to back setbacks in the recent past.
In July 2017, Sharif was sent home after the apex court unanimously issued a ruling that disqualified the then PM due to his failure to disclose his ‘un-withdrawn receivables, constituting assets’ in his nomination papers filed ahead of the 2013 general elections.
This judgment came as a major blow to the ruling family, which further led to filing of three different references against Nawaz Sharif and his children and son-in-law Captain (retd) Safdar in connection with the Panama Papers leak.
Among other challenges, a major question was raised: Who will now spearhead the party?
Months following this development and days leading up the general elections 2018, the party confronted numerous obstacles. In April, PML-N concerted a new strategy to contain instability by letting Shehbaz Sharif be the front-man.
With both Nawaz and Maryam convicted and unable to contest elections, the three-time Punjab chief minister was the obvious choice to lead the party.
Playing ‘good cop bad cop’
Shehbaz, the new PML-N president, is contesting upcoming polls from three provincial and four national assembly constituencies. Shehbaz would emerge as top runner for the next prime minister if his party bags substantial number of seats in Punjab alone.
In 2013 elections, he had won seats from NA-129, PP-159 and PP-247.
According to senior political analyst Mazhar Abbas, securing a majority in Punjab would mean that Shehbaz’s narrative of public service and administration wasn’t ‘weak’ after all. “Both brothers have been reading their narratives aloud; Nawaz chanting ‘Vote ko izzat do’ (respect the vote) whereas Shehbaz repeating ‘Khidmat ko vote do’ (vote for services).
“In the long run, however, it definitely means more power for Shehbaz but much of it will be determined over what happens in the next couple of years,” Abbas added. He speculated that if Imran Khan comes to power and scrutinises PML-N and Shehbaz, this will reveal what Nawaz’s sentence really meant for his younger brother.
He maintained that if Maryam Nawaz is not provided relief even after the appeal, Shehbaz’s narrative will prevail. “If Maryam is relieved, she will (obviously) play a key role and it would only be smart to not pick rows with Shehbaz or his son Hamza and instead play the good cop and bad cop.”
Whose narrative is more powerful of the two Sharifs?
The current scenario is also a challenge among the PML-N ranks. Political analyst Zarrar Khuhro remarked that the party has camps within as well. “Part of them believe that we need to focus on building roads and still go confrontational; and the other half is focusing on the election,” he said, adding that a faction of the party even questioned as to why all PML-N workers didn’t go all-out when Nawaz returned home?
Historically, the Sharif brothers operated as an alliance with their own narratives. Shehbaz, along with Chaudhry Nisar had always been the mediator between his brother and the establishment. “Shehbaz wouldn’t anger the establishment even now and would continue to focus on public service, whereas Nawaz’s physical presence drives the campaign,” Khuhro commented.
In the 90s, according to Mazhar Abbas, liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) supporters were in favour of the ‘business’ driven PML-N. “According to these liberals, a ‘business minded, capitalist’ government could push liberal narratives forward which earned Sharifs the label of ‘urbanised politicians’,” the senior analyst added.
So far, Shehbaz’s narrative was bent on development and public service, which has strengthened the ruling of the party on the ground, especially Lahore. Which one of the two is more powerful shall only be determined after the July 25 elections.
What’s next for Shehbaz?
As the father-daughter duo are declared ineligible to contest elections, the future of the party is not just an opportunity for Shehbaz but an added responsibility. Professor and political expert Rasool Baksh Rais predicted that “keeping the party unified, consolidating the legacy of Mian Nawaz Sharif, and reconciling and accommodating interests of establishment” will be Shehbaz’ key battles in months to come.
“He mediated between establishment and Nawaz in the past but “can he do it now” is the question.”
Rais also highlighted that Nawaz and the party benefited from Shehbaz’s contributions to the province. Even after being rendered ineffective following the 2017 disqualification, Nawaz focused on strengthening his daughter and thereafter his own legacy. “Therefore Shehbaz Sharif isn’t Nawaz’s first choice.”
If the party is to form a government at the centre or in the province, prospects for Shehbaz appear bright. However, Khuhro stated that while results are highly speculative at this point, the prospects for the party shall prevail “unless some old cases are rehashed against Shehbaz”.
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