In Pakistan, it’s advantage Sharifs


Even after judicial interventions against Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N looks likely to face the polls from a position of strength

Shahbaz Sharif’s recent appointment as interim president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was a landmark development that catapults the party into the campaign for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The appointment of a new chief of the PML-N was necessitated last month when the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s removal as party chief. Irrespective of the question of judicial overreach, perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, Nawaz Sharif should have effected the succession earlier after the court had disqualified him as Prime Minister.

Battleground Punjab

Going forward, the party is likely to gather strength under Shahbaz Sharif and face the forthcoming elections from a position of strength. He has been the face of the PML-N in Punjab as the Chief Minister of the province, where the party has a greater presence than in the rest of Pakistan. For the PML-N, Pakistan is Punjab writ large; hence, Shahbaz Sharif is unlikely to face any challenges in running the party. He is acceptable to the rest of the PML-N leadership in the province.

Second, by nominating Shahbaz Sharif and not Maryam Nawaz, who is seen to be Nawaz Sharif’s political heir, the party has taken a positive step. He brings with him huge administrative experience as the Chief Minister of the largest province, and hence at the national level is likely to be able to carry the party forward better than his niece.

Given the electoral arithmetic, demography and the distribution of seats in Pakistan, if the PML-N succeeds in holding Punjab province, in all likelihood it will be able to come back to power at the federal level as well, with or without a coalition. The recent success stories for the PML-N in the bye-elections in Lahore and Lodhran provide some indication. Of the 342 seats for the National Assembly of Pakistan (with direct elections for 272 NA constituencies), a party will need 172 seats to form the government. In the 2013 elections, PML-N could secure 189, including the reserved seats. The previous elections had 183 seats from Punjab alone — 148 directly elected and 35 reserved seats for women. With delimitation after the latest census, the province has lost seven elected seats.

Given the level of opposition and the lack of possibility of a coalition amongst them, return of the PML-N seems likely. For instance, it is difficult to to see the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) aligning with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) at the national level, or with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Sindh.

The military’s stance

That is, unless the Deep State decides to effect some political re-engineering. Given former cricketer and PTI leader Imran Khan’s single-minded objective to become the Prime Minister by any means, and the cards available with the military establishment ranging from Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, the MQM and former President Pervez Musharraf, an attempt could be made. But, it is unlikely to succeed if the elections remain free and fair.

However, there are also indications within Pakistan that Shahbaz Sharif is acceptable to the Deep State. So any intervention by the Deep State could remain limited to Karachi and perhaps Quetta.

For the military, there are serious global developments as the recent FATF (Financial Action Task Force) discussions in Paris indicate. Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the U.S. too are at a critical juncture. So, political instability may be the last thing Rawalpindi would want.

Another theory that had been doing the rounds was about a split within the PML-N. There was speculation that the former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, would lead a revolt within the party, but the Sharif brothers appear to have succeeded in isolating him. He was not even invited for the latest meeting where the decision was taken to make Shahbaz Sharif the interim president of the party and Nawaz Sharif its Quaid (supreme leader).

In any case, Nawaz Sharif is likely to play the victim card to mop up sympathy votes for his party. Perhaps, the judiciary has done a big favour to the PML-N by being so harsh on its leader.

D. Suba Chandran is a professor and a dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 2:22:24 PM |

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