The by-election in NA-120 was billed as a political clash that would decide the future of the Sharif family after the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, by the Supreme Court.
It eventually evolved into a battle of wits between the Sharif clan, defending their Lahore citadel, and challenger Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and its candidate Dr. Yasmin Rashid. The Sharifs pushed former first lady Kulsoom Nawaz into the political fray, listing her as the final nominee for NA-120, pitching her against Dr. Rashid Rashid, a respected gynecologist and political fighter.
As a political novice, Dr. Rashid had contested the 2013 general election against the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) chief, who had twice ruled the country as a prime minister. Nobody, at that time, even dreamed Dr. Rashid would give a tough fight to a political stalwart, who was all set to enter the PM House for the third time.
The result surprised everyone. Nawaz Sharif garnered 91,000 votes against 52,000 votes polled by Dr. Rashid, thereby turning Sharif into the only winning candidate of the PML-N in Lahore who could not cross six figures.
But the political landscape was very different in 2017, and against the backdrop of the Panama Papers case and the Supreme Court verdict, Kulsoom Sharif was the only immediate family member who had emerged unscathed, making her the most viable candidate. Nor was the Sharif clan willing to entrust the seat to a non-family candidate, reinforcing the perception that NA-120 is not simply a safe PML-N seat, but is considered a Sharif family seat.
The family princess, groomed for the past five years by an array of attentive PML-N leaders, was now politically centre-stage and in the public eye
In 2013, Nawaz Sharif’s campaign was spearheaded jointly by his daughter Maryam Nawaz and his nephew Hamza Shahbaz. But by 2017, with Kulsoom Nawaz being ill and in London for medical treatment, Maryam Nawaz Sharif emerged as the leader of the campaign and a prominent leader of the PML-N. The family princess, groomed for the past five years by an array of attentive PML-N leaders, was now politically centre-stage and in the public eye.
Assisted by a brigade of provincial and national assembly members, ministers, senators and advisors, Maryam Nawaz took to the campaign trail with energy. The Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, Raja Farooq Haider, also encamped himself in Lahore with his cabinet members to woo annoyed Kashmiri voters, the second largest caste in the constituency after the Arain clan.
On the campaign trail, Maryam Sharif was catapulted straight into the top tier of the party, despite not having ever contested any election in her entire life.
In this respect, she followed the same trajectory as the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but with huge differences. Benazir Bhutto’s entry into Pakistan’s political arena was a trial under fire. Her father, also a former prime minister had been executed, not dismissed from office and facing indictments for corruption. Benazir spent years under house arrest and entered politics facing off against the same dictator who hanged her father. Her two brothers were living in uneasy exile, constantly fearing arrest. Maryam’s two brothers are prospering in luxury London flats.
In comparison, Maryam Sharif’s foray into politics has been a charmed and privileged launch. Immediately after the announcement that Kulsoom Sharif was to be the ruling party’s candidate from NA-120, Maryam declared she would run her mother’s campaign, dismissing her cousin Hamza Shahbaz’s support. She took over Lahore’s Model Town party secretariat from her uncle, the Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, who until then had been using it as his official secretariat.
Maryam Sharif started her political activities at the Model Town secretariat and indirectly took command of the party as well. Though the PML-N central working committee had nominated Sardar Yaqoob Nasir as the PML-N’s interim President, it was clear to everyone that he was a mere figurehead. In absence of her father and while his political fortunes lie unsettled, Maryam Sharif is the defacto head of the ruling PML-N.
The 44-year-old Maryam Sharif is married to a retired Pakistan Army captain, Mohammad Safdar Awan, who is currently a member of the National Assembly. The couple have three children. Prior to entering politics, her only profile was being a housewife and taking part in philanthropic works that are part of the family’s charity trusts.
The PML-N’s media cell, which operated under Maryam Sharif, was seen as souring relations between the army chief and Nawaz Sharif
Despite campaigning for Nawaz Sharif in 2013, alongside her cousin Hamza Shahbaz, she was not perceived as the PML-N heir. In fact, immediately after his return to Pakistan from exile, Nawaz Sharif in a public meeting had declared Hamza his political heir.
But all that changed slowly, after Nawaz Sharif took oath as Prime Minister, and Maryam along with her mother, moved into the Prime Minister House as the First Family. Maryam took charge of the PM House administrative affairs and was soon running the media cell of the erstwhile prime minister. In November 2013, she was appointed the chairperson of the Prime Minister Youth Internship Programme. However, her appointment was challenged and cited as an example of rampant nepotism by opposition parties, especially the PTI.
Her appointment was finally taken to court by the PTI, where Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, in October 2014, ordered the administration to demand her resignation. Her academic credentials also came under the scrutiny of the court. Maryam officially holds a Masters degree in English Literature. In 2014, she resigned from the post of the chairpersonship.
Within political circles, it is widely believed that Maryam was responsible for the strain in civil-military ties that occurred as a result of the Dawn Leaks story, though the subsequent Joint Investigation Team (JIT) report did not mention her by name. Instead, Federal Information Minister Senator Pervez Rasheed fell on the sword for the family, proffering his resignation to the prime minister after the publication of the story.
The PML-N’s media cell, which operated under Maryam Sharif, was seen as souring relations between the army chief and Nawaz Sharif, to the extent that, at one point, the two met after a gap of 34 days.
Some within the PML-N opine that Maryam Sharif had a hand in keeping the then Federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, from important meetings of the party’s senior leadership. This, in turn, initiated a cold war between Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar.
She triggered a social media out cry after arriving at the Supreme Court in a convoy of luxury vehicles bearing false license plates
Though she escaped being cited in the JIT report on the Dawn Leaks case, she is named in the Panama Papers case, along with her father and two brothers. She also appeared before the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) for the Panama Papers case along with her husband Capt Safdar Awan to record their statements. Now she is facing a judicial enquiry for her role in the Panama Papers case in NAB courts along with other family members.
Throughout the proceedings of the Supreme Court, Maryam Sharif has steadfastly supported her father. Nonetheless, she triggered a social media outcry after arriving at the Supreme Court in a convoy of luxury vehicles bearing false license plates.
The outrage increased after a senior policewoman saluted Maryam Sharif, despite the fact that she holds no public office, elected or selected. While the future of Nawaz Sharif and his children remains unclear as the NAB judicial enquiry proceeds, the family seems confident. But it remains to be seen if the top tier of the PML-N, a largely conservative party, would formally accept a young, untested and inexperienced woman as leader of the party.
Maryam Sharif joined the party between 2011 and 2012 and has yet to hold a party position or contest an election at even the provincial level. Can her name alone carry her to the top office?
Against the Odds
In Conversation with Dr. Yasmin Rashid
I have always been active in politics since my college days, from being elected as Secretary and President of the college union to being on the frontlines of doctors’ activism. During my 26 years of professional life, I have always been an office bearer of some platform. I was the first woman to be elected as President of the Pakistan Medical Association, and when I retired from service in 2010, I joined Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to take an active part in national politics.
What led you to enter politics and why did you opt for PTI?
While I was working with PMA, I had come to realise that eventually it is the government which makes a difference. So I decided to take part in national politics, enter the government and implement the plans I had envisioned. For that purpose I had to join a political party. My first choice was PTI because my father-in-law Malik Ghulam Nabi (a political figure, and founding member of PPP, having served as education minister of Punjab) on his death bed, advised me to join the PTI. I was a very active member of PTI, and that was why soon after I had joined, Imran Khan appointed me as the General Secretary Punjab.
Why did you decide to contest against two time Prime Minister and Prime Minister in-waiting, Nawaz Sharif, from NA-120?
It was my party’s decision. Imran Khan wanted me to contest against Nawaz Sharif because he wanted someone who could give a tough fight to Nawaz Sharif and I am really grateful to him for choosing me. I contested this election and got 52,000 votes. I have now been working in this constituency for the last three to four years, so when it fell vacant due to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, my party again decided to cast me as a candidate for the by-polls.
Do you think the by-polls in NA 120 were fair?
Not at all, it was rigged from day one. We have submitted 30 petitions against the pre-poll rigging. We knew that it was going to be rigged but it was our decision to contest the polls on principle. We contested it and contested it well, and continued pointing out the difficulties and problems we faced. My rival candidate was not in Pakistan so I contested against the federal and provincial governments and fought well.
How do you view Maryam Nawaz as your future political rival?
I do not give her any weight at all. A political worker is someone who starts learning politics from the grass roots level with inherent political qualities. Maryam has joined politics just because her father was the party head and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. She has no extraordinary personal qualities. She was neither a student leader nor does she have any single personal achievement in her life. She has not led any political movement. Her father brought her into politics as his political heir. I have not seen any quality in her except for the fact that she is just the daughter of Nawaz Sharif.
Do you think that Maryam will be your rival candidate in 2018?
Actually I have no idea, and I am not bothered by it. Even in my previous election I had announced that I was ready to compete against five to six Sharif’s together. I am ready to contest the elections no matter who is my rival, Maryam or her mother or even her father.
How do you see your political future?
My political future is very bright. At this advanced age, I am well recognised all over Pakistan and people know me as someone fighting against a huge mafia. Because of this, my party gives me immense respect. I consider myself very lucky to have such recognition from my party and the people of Pakistan.