Pakistan’s electoral landscape has consistently been ruled by a handful of clans and families, particularly over the past five decades. Even as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto blazed across the political firmament, the seeds had already been sown for a dynasty of the Bhuttos by his father Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto.
But in the vacuum created by the temporary fall of the Bhutto dynasty after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution, a quiet and seemingly low-key clan was slowly weaving itself into the political fabric of Pakistan in the 1980s. The patriarch of the Sharif clan, Mian Muhammed Sharif, bided his time as he introduced his two sons into national politics.
Within a few years, Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif slowly and steadily tightened their grip over the Pakistan Muslim League, eventually taking control of the party. That was the time the Sharif family was known for its unity within political circles.
Mian Sharif, the head of the family, used to call the shots and his word was considered as final by his sons, without any squabbling or ambitious adventures. Mian Sharif was instrumental in not only introducing his sons into politics, but also keeping them united and focused. From 1988, onwards, the elder Sharif made sure Shahbaz ruled the roost in Punjab, even as the National Assembly operated on a revolving door policy, between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.
He maneuvered Shahbaz into the post of Punjab chief minister and forced Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi to withdraw his candidature immediately after the landslide victory of the Pakistan Muslim League in 1997, as Nawaz Sharif once again claimed the premiership in Islamabad.
After the 1999 coup, Mian Sharif did not let his younger and highly-ambitious son Shahbaz Sharif strike any deal with the establishment, choosing instead, to lead the whole family into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Mian Sharif passed away in 2004 in Saudi Arabia and the Sharifs waited out their remaining term in exile, even as a fractured Pakistan Muslim League splintered into different factions. His elder son and former twice-elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed the authority to head the family. Immediately after their return to Pakistan in 2007, Nawaz Sharif, during his election campaign, announced his nephew Hamza Shahbaz, the elder son of Shahbaz Sharif, as his political heir in recognition of his sacrifices for the family. The dynasty looked like it was ready to take root.
Following announcements from his uncle, on different occasions, Hamza Shahbaz admitted that Nawaz Sharif was his ideal in politics and he was following in his footsteps. Nawaz Sharif’s decision of picking his nephew as his political heir was considered a major step in keeping family unity intact.
Nevertheless, there are many who believed that Nawaz made this decision after both his sons, Hassan and Hussain, had indicated their distaste for politics.
Differences between Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif came to the surface after the latter became Chief Minister of Punjab again in 2013. Shahbaz Sharif, in league with Chaudhry Nisar, his old time friend, held a number of meetings with the then Army Chief Gen, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. The Chaudhry Nisar-Shahbaz Sharif duo had always played the role of a bridge between the army and civilian leaderships, and it cherished this function. They consistently worked to remove misgivings, if any, between the two sides.
However, these efforts were never fully welcomed by Nawaz Sharif who frequently criticised the military. While Nawaz Sharif is believed to have a strong anti-establishment streak, Shahbaz has always been a supporter of maintaining a close liaison with them.
The gulf between Nawaz and Shahbaz further widened when Maryam Nawaz, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, started taking interest in politics. During the 2013 election campaign, Maryam Nawaz made her presence felt in the political arena when she started campaigning for her father in NA-120, in Lahore.
Maryam’s entry into the political arena was not welcomed by Hamza or his father Shahbaz Sharif. After the election in 2013, Maryam Nawaz moved to Islamabad and started calling the shots on behalf of her father from the Prime Minister House. The entry of Maryam Nawaz in politics not only thwarted Hamza Shahbaz’s desires, but also of his father Shahbaz Sharif who was dreaming of becoming the future prime minister. Shahbaz Sharif’s close aides believe he considered Maryam Nawaz solely responsible for the whole debacle of Nawaz Sharif losing the premiership.
On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif had blind faith in his daughter who he believed was taking his political legacy forward. It was due to the influence of Maryam Nawaz that Nawaz Sharif had to withdraw his initial plan of making Shahbaz Sharif the prime minister after his disqualification. Instead, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was made the premier.
She reportedly even prevented her father from announcing Shahbaz Sharif as the party head after he himself was barred from holding this office. Little-known Nawaz Sharif loyalist, Sardar Yaqoob Nasir was made party president instead of entrusting this post to Shahbaz Sharif.
There has been talk in the PML-N, Punjab camp, that Nawaz Sharif “smartly deprived” Shahbaz of an opportunity to become prime minister because the former does not want his role in party affairs curtailed. After his disqualification by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case on July 28, Nawaz had announced that Shahbaz would be the prime minister for the remaining 10-month tenure of the party after interim arrangements of 45 days for which Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was elected premier.
There is no guarantee, goes one argument, that Shahbaz will get the same chance in 2018 in case the PML-N wins the election because Kulsoom Nawaz and Maryam Nawaz may be in the race for the top slot.
On the other hand, there are reports that the statements from Federal Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada, against Nawaz Sharif and in favour of Shahbaz Sharif, were in fact endorsements of an idea by someone who is apparently close to the chief minister.
Another report on a meeting of 40 PML-N MPAs from various parts of the province in Lahore, indicates that the message emanating from the meeting was the same as had been earlier conveyed with varying degrees of forthrightness: replace Nawaz Sharif with his younger brother as the party head.
This development has not come out of the blue. It is consistent with some statements that have come from what is increasingly being referred to as the ‘Shahbaz camp’ within the PML-N. These statements include those made by Hamza Shahbaz, elder son of Shahbaz Sharif and an influential MNA in his own right. The Sharif scion has been advocating a moderate approach after silently watching Maryam Nawaz conducting aggressive politics along with her father.
It is generally believed that a more measured, less acrimonious thrust on the part of the PML-N would entail the passing of the leadership mantle to Shahbaz Sharif. Indeed, it is thought that there is increasing demand within the PML-N for such a change and that the party risks losing members to opposing forces if it delays such a transition.
But one thing is clear: Shahbaz Sharif being in charge would mean a mellowing of the party position. A shift from the former prime minister, who is understandably very bitter at his removal, to Shahbaz Sharif, would signify a fundamental departure. Insiders claim that this transition would not be easy to accomplish and would perhaps mark the building of a new party altogether.
The true reflection of shifting sands was witnessed during the recent visit of Shahbaz Sharif, with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, to London to meet Nawaz Sharif. The agenda of the meeting was to persuade him to nominate Shahbaz Sharif as the new party head who would manage things to get his brother and party out of this turmoil.
Nawaz Sharif is reported to have refused them saying that he would continue with the same policy of targeting the institutions. He made it clear to his younger brother that if he had any objection to his policies he should consider leaving the party.
Quite recently, Qatari Prince Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani during his visit to Raiwind held a closed-door meeting with Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. It has been a practice in the past that whenever a foreign delegation met Nawaz Sharif at Jati Umrah, Shahbaz Sharif used to be a part of it. But this time around Shahbaz, despite being in Lahore, was not invited to the meeting. Insiders claimed that there is a strong trust deficit between the brothers and the gulf between them is widening day by day.
But Shahbaz Sharif himself has come under considerable pressure following the release of the Model Town inquiry report, which doesn’t absolve him of total responsibility. The inquiry was conducted into police action against workers of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, headed by Tahirul Qadri, in June 2014. At least 14 people were killed during the bungled operation.
The re-opening of the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case may also force Shahhbaz Sharif into a more conciliatory relationship with his elder brother. The financial stakes of the Sharif clan are inextricably linked. While Shahbaz Sharif and his sons have, so far, evaded being hauled up in the Panama Papers scandal, they may not be so lucky next time.
Will the Sharifs close ranks to fend off corruption charges, or will the pressures blow family unity apart? The next few months will test the family and the party.