ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), the ruling political party of the country, despite enjoying significant power for more than 30 years, faces a difficult time following the disqualification of its chief Muhammad Nawaz Sharif by the top court. A battle of succession has gradually commenced in the Sharif family, which was united for its political and business interests for the past several decades. In a recent meeting between the two Sharif brothers it is, however, announced that the party leadership in the coming elections will rest with Shahbaz Sharif, hinting that Maryam and Hamza Sharif will not be favoured for the top post.
In the backdrop of Panama papers scandal, former PM Sharif and his children failed to produce the money trail for their London properties, managed through offshore companies, for which apex court disqualified (possibly forever) the former, ordering the accountability court to run their trial and conclude it by the end of this year.
Following his disqualification, Sharif was also supposed to be removed from the headship of his party but he quickly managed to change the law barring him from his party’s leadership. Opposition parties have challenged this new legislation in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. After the disqualification, Sharif and his close aides, including daughter Maryam Nawaz, who made a forceful entry in the political arena, turned bitter towards the military establishment; indirectly accusing the deep state of plotting Sharif ouster for the third time.
PML-N still rules with a senior party member replaced as prime minister but a battle of succession is serious. Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is serving as chief minister of the largest populated province, Punjab, has been eyed as the possible successor of elder Sharif. However, his alleged pro-military stance, his tight-lipped reaction on Panama papers issue, and the entry of daughter of elder Sharif posing herself as the possible successor of her father, were seen to create a rift in the family.
Younger Sharif also gave multiple statements contradicting his brother’s narrative to ensure civilian supremacy in the country and to close the doors of military interventions in the civilian regimes forever. He openly suggested exercising of verbal restraint vis-à-vis military establishment while opting for a middle ground to save the future of the party and the Sharif family. A sizeable number of party members support younger Sharif and wish him to lead. However, the turn of events have supported him as the London announcement also concluded that a restraint would be practiced by the party rhetoric vis-à-vis military establishment of the country.
It would be hard for elder Sharif to quit from politics and power. Maryam’s emergence as a strong political aspirant in the past few years was considered as sidelining of the leadership role of younger Sharif and his son Hamza Shahbaz, often dubbed as the defecto CM of the Punjab province. This presented a stark contrast from the ex first-family’s previous stance, when no one from within the elder Sharif’s family wanted to enter in politics leaving the space open for younger Sharif brother. The two sons of elder Sharif have always focused on expanding their business empire, spreading through Pakistan to the United Kingdom.
As the public denouncement of inner chasms grew thin, the top leadership of the PMLN – two brothers – elder and younger Sharifs became the point of discussion in country’s politics. On one side the former PM Sharif struggles to save himself from the graft cases in the accountability court and to get his disqualification removed through legal means, yet on another his continued confrontation with the military establishment via daughter Maryam Nawaz, poised as a possible contender to lead the party in future against the wishes of some of the party’s senior leaders.
“There is possibility of some grouping in the party but creation of a new faction will be very hard,” political analyst and senior journalist Mazhar Abbas said, adding, “This also depends on elder Sharif, who is still struggling to survive by prolonging the accountability cases against him to pose himself a political victim.” Abbas said that the younger Sharif would be the ultimate choice of elder Sharif and his party to secure future.
Younger Sharif has also opposed the efforts of bringing a new law of accountability with intentions to include judiciary and army in the ambit of that law. He contended that army and judiciary have their own accountability mechanisms and the focus should be on parliament’s accountability rather embroiling into controversies.
Maryam, who is co-accused in the graft references against elder Sharif, remains at centre stage of party politics as elder Sharif’s successor. She has been with her father learning art of politics for the last many years now. In a recent talk to The New York Times she posed herself as potential leader of the party and as political successor of Sharif family. However, younger Sharif, his son and loyalist have indirectly highlighted the emerging differences with elder Sharif. Many senior party leaders, including former Interior Minister, have voiced that they will not accept Maryam as party leader.
Despite opposition Maryam maintains a considerable amount of support within the party. She had remained in the PM House with her father for the past four years and many young ministers in the federal cabinet of the ruling party have been appointed on her recommendation. In her presence, younger Sharif and his son Hamza Shahbaz, known as defecto CM of the Punjab province, were seen sidelined from the party activities and campaigns. The latest example was the bye-poll in NA-120 in Lahore, where she acted as the solo-runner of the show. In a recent interview, Hamza admitted differences with the party leadership on certain issues and his commitment to resolve them.
At the time of the ex-PM Sharif’s disqualification, younger Sharif’s name was considered final to lead the party as president but the election meeting was deferred as elder Sharif left or London to inquire after his spouse. Also, younger Sharif’s name was formally announced by elder Sharif as a permanent PM until the tenure of the assembly while announcing Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the stopgap PM. However, this decision was also changed only a couple of days after the formal announcement. Younger Sharif’s also named as part president after elder Sharif’s removal later the law was amended and latter was re-elected as party president.
In recent days, the real challenge for younger Sharif was said to be within the family where elder Sharif’s daughter had emerged with huge political ambitions. Whether PMLN will maintain its unity will be seen in days to come. Many believe that Sharifs can do anything to save their business empires.
“We should keep in mind that PMLN is popular and its vote bank is intact with the name of Nawaz Sharif so nothing will happen without consent and approval of elder Sharif.,” senior journalist Mujeebur Rehman Shami said. He said minus Nawaz PML-N would never work the same way and ultimately ex-PM would have to choose well to announce his successor to save the party from these tumultuous times.
The recent announcement from the Sharif family may have temporarily ameliorated the fears of a significant rift in the party. However the times are tough. The cases against the ex PM and his family are only the tip of the iceberg. Despite the sympathy rousing campaigns by the ex first-family, the masses may desire a new face of the party. The Sharif clan and the party future are treading a tight rope.
Firstly, it seems that the contradictory stance by the both Sharifs may have caused alliances to split within the party. The leadership styles of both the brothers are quite nuanced. This difference could become more apparent in the coming general elections. Also keep in view that in the recent days, since ex-PM’s disqualification, groups have emerged within the party, supportive of either Sharif. These groups favour different views on governance and power-sharing.
Finally, with Shahbaz and Hamza Sharif’s names allegedly implicated in the Hudaibiya Paper Mill case and Maryam already facing NAB trials, the future of the party leaders is grim. One more decision can render another disqualification. PML-N has to plan realistically. There may be no win-situation for them.