Will the embattled Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) be able to repeat the electoral feat of the last general elections in 2018? Will the ruling party be able to ride through the political storm and ensure that the Sharif family be allowed to run in the coming elections?
These are the two most important questions faced by the PML-N leadership and supporters, who apparently are in a comfortable position in their bastion of power – Punjab. Yet, even many ardent supporters of the ruling party fear that not just the future of Nawaz Sharif — the disqualified prime minister — appears bleak, but his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif could also be ousted from the electoral process before the D-Day of the polling.
In the 2013 elections, the PML-N won 147 seats in the National Assembly and the figure rose to 189 through reserved seats and by roping in independent candidates. The controversial electoral sweep in Punjab, along with its presence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa and Balochistan enabled Nawaz Sharif to achieve a decisive majority in the Parliament.
But where will the PML-N stand if the Sharifs are not there to lead the party in the coming elections? It is yet another haunting question for the PML-N stalwarts.
Nawaz Sharif is indeed in a defiant and confrontationist mood as he strives to change his political fortunes by building pressure on the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau, which are pursuing corruption cases against him. Legal experts predict that the elder Sharif is likely to end up in jail ahead of the general elections, though he managed to become the PML-N president — courtesy a controversial constitutional amendment, allowing disqualified and convicted persons to head a party.
Sharif, however, faces strong opposition from within the party for his relentless attacks on state institutions, including the judiciary and the armed forces.
His daughter, Maryam — the real political heir — also faces corruption cases and can be disqualified and barred from running in the elections.
The more the father-daughter duo attacks the state institutions, the more are the chances of increased internal friction and breakup within the PML-N. Many PML-N insiders believe that the disqualified premier himself is sealing the future of the party the way he is running its affairs. Therefore, many leaders within the party remain covertly, if not overtly critical of their party leader’s policies.
It is perhaps due to the internal discord and resistance that the disqualified premier has not been able to convene the party’s parliamentary committee meeting.
Most party members appear convinced that it is time for Shahbaz Sharif to take center-stage and lead the party minus the elder brother and the controversial niece Maryam.
PML-N insiders say that the elder Sharif decided to nominate Shahbaz as the prime ministerial candidate, but the decision has yet to be formally made public. However, Nawaz Sharif had made similar promises in the past, but later decided to ditch his younger brother in favour of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who is running the show as the prime minister. The bottom line is that despite having ambitions, Shahbaz won’t find it easy to cruise to the Prime Minister House as there remains many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Shahbaz has been occupying the throne of Lahore since 2008. In his latest stint as chief minister, he enjoys an overwhelming support of the provincial lawmakers. In the Punjab Assembly, the PML-N has a sweeping majority of 321 members out of a total of 371. But given the current political climate, Shahbaz does not enjoy smooth sailing because on one hand, the case of the Model Town massacre hangs over his head like a sword and on the other, he seems unable to find a way to de-link himself from his elder brother’s confrontational politics.
Although a number of PML-N senior leaders want Shahbaz to take charge of the party, so far the junior Sharif has not been able to come out of the shadow of his elder brother. A number of PML-N members believe that the future of their party is in limbo because of the myopic policies of Nawaz Sharif.
The PML-N requires new leadership and must de-link itself from the bitterness of the past if it wants to stay in the game. For this, the ruling party needs to sideline Nawaz Sharif and his small coterie, which for its own political survival, is pushing for the politics of brinkmanship.
Even Shahbaz will have to perform a high-wire balancing act to pull the party out of the troubled waters given that all the opposition parties are baying for his head in the Model Town firing case in which 14 workers of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek were killed in 2014.
With elections only few months’ away, both time and options are running out fast for the PML-N. On the surface, the ruling party does not have any other candidate with the credentials of Shahbaz to take over its leadership for the 2018 elections. But if Shahbaz gets stumped like his elder brother, the party will be left rudderless.
For now, the PML-N’s future appears bleak because its leadership has not just become controversial but seen as the main obstacle in any efforts to end the grinding political stalemate in the country. The best bet for the party remains Shahbaz, if he manages to overcome the internal and external obstacles placed in his way by friends and foes, and especially by his elder brother.