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Whither is the Nawaz League bound?

Senior PML-N leaders who had gone to London to convince ousted prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif to make a strategic retreat seem to have failed in their effort. Considering the rumblings of a rebellion inside the party over his policy of confrontation towards institutions and the decision to get himself ‘re-elected’ as party president, it is not difficult to figure out what they wanted of him. In his media talk following a three-hour long meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and some others, he launched his usual attack on the judiciary for disqualifying him in the Panama Papers case on the basis of possessing an undeclared asset under a UAE iqama (work permit). This time though he spared the ‘invisible forces’ he and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have been accusing of being behind their misfortune. She has not changed that line of attack yet. It remains to be seen if he is to soften his stance when he returns to appear before a NAB accountability court tomorrow.

Reacting to reports of a rift in his party, Mian Sahib said there is no ‘minus-Nawaz’ formula at play. He is right, indeed, in believing that the issue of corruption does not bother his religious-right support base, and that he remains the face of the party. But wrong in insisting the law should cater to the voters’ wishes and assuming all in his party endorse his confrontational form. Given his situation, he would have been wise to take up the mantle of party patron handing its reins to his brother Shahbaz Sharif, he being the second best bet for the PML-N to stay united. Mian Sahib is unwilling to step aside. According to an interesting report appearing in a well-respected newspaper, the London meeting decided to nominate the younger Sharif brother as the prime ministerial candidate ‘after’ the 2018 elections ‘if’ Nawaz Sharif remains ineligible to run for that office. ‘After’ the 2018 elections? The conditional ‘if’ is worth noting, too. A reality check suggests there is no room for an ‘if’. Islamabad High Court as well as the Lahore High Court has taken up hearing of petitions challenging his ‘re-election’ as party president. Even ‘if’ the courts decide against the petitioners, he will still be ineligible to participate in the upcoming elections since the Supreme Court verdict in the Panama corruption case has already disqualified him for an indefinite period from becoming a member of the National Assembly. Yet it is obvious he doesn’t want his brother to bid for the office of prime minister.

So what is it that he has in mind? One apparent reason is that he is still thinking of having his daughter Maryam stand as candidate for the top job. She, of course, harbours prime ministerial ambitions – she blurted out as much in a recent interview with the New York Times. But she may also be declared disqualified to be a member of the NA consequent to the NAB accountability court’s likely unfavourable verdict in her London flats case. Besides, lending voice to the prevailing mood in the party, Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique – considered a Nawaz loyalist – has made it clear she is not acceptable, saying neither Maryam nor Hamza (Shahbaz’s son) is our leader; they are like our sister and brother.

The other reason could be related to his recent visit to Saudi Arabia where he spent an entire week. The stated purpose of the visit was to perform ‘Umra’, but he also held meetings with some Saudi officials though neither the King nor the Crown Prince could make time for him. Despite suspicions about the conversations he had there, the accountability process having gotten as far as it has there is little anyone can do to help him get the relief he may be seeking. Whatever Mian Sahib’s intentions, the party is getting restive as the election time draws nearer. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan expressed the concerns of his friend Shahbaz and many others when he said “unfortunately, personal interests are being prioritized over party. This will not only be harmful for these individuals [Mian Sahib and his daughter] but also for the party.”

As things stand, there is a strong chance of the NAB court finding Mian Sahib guilty in the Panama Papers case. If and when that happens, he surely won’t be ready to go to jail; as soon as he senses trouble he will head for the next available flight to London. And under no circumstances will the Interior Minister, Ahsan Iqbal, put his name on the Exit Control List.

Meanwhile, the question agitating the minds of his party men is this, who is to lead them into the general elections due in a few months time? Most like to see Shahbaz Sharif in that role, despite his brother’s resistance. At some point Mian Sahib might be compelled to make that change. But then they could be left grappling with another quandary if the NAB decides to proceed with the Hudaibiya Paper Mills money laundering case. Shahbaz Sharif is one of the principal accused in it. The previous NAB chief had kept sitting on the case despite the apex court’s directive to initiate proceedings. His successor could decide to open it. That would put paid to the second Sharif’s political future, leaving the Nawaz Leaguers in the lurch. In such an event, the PML-N is unlikely to stay intact though Mian Sahib may think he can lead it, like the former MQM supremo Altaf Hussain used to do, from London. The Muslim League and the MQM have a very different character. Before too long ‘minus-Nawaz’ formula would be at play. The party can be expected to regroup, taking some other factions of the Muslim League into its fold, and rise under a new leadership, dropping the N to replace it with a new suffix.


Saida Fazal, "Whither is the Nawaz League bound?," Business Recorder. 2017-11-02.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Election reforms , Civilian corruption , Political crimes , Nawaz Sharif , PMLN

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