Earlier, this week the ruling party elected Punjab’s Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif as the interim head of the party. The decision followed the Supreme Court ruling that Nawaz Sharif could no longer hold a political party office given that the latter had disqualified him in 2017. The change in party leadership came along with the elevation of Nawaz Sharif as its supreme leader for life. Thus while the King may no longer hold formal office — he remains very much in charge of all his men, including the younger heir apparent. The party cadres and the country have been intimated as to who pulls the strings in this latest theatre-of-the-absurd adaptation — the former monarch still wears the crown; even if the throne upon which he now perches has been reconstituted especially for him.
Pundits everywhere are currently taking bets. Initial odds place deposed-premier-turned-Quaid-for-life Nawaz Sharif entirely in control of the PMLN narrative in the election run-up and beyond. Meaning that Shehbaz Sharif will have to accept that his newfound position of party chief works under the Supreme Leader. After all, much has been made of how Nawaz’s principled politics of resistance, as a rallying cry for the people, will ultimately prevail. Which may or may not be an admission that infrastructure projects alone do not elections win. And since the latter are, in essence, but a numbers game — give or take a few ‘punctured tyres’ here and there — Shehbaz will have to work within the new arrangement. Not only that, he may soon find himself overshadowed by another: Maryam. For she has emerged from the Sharif family corruption scandal with the most to win. Indeed, she stands today as a powerful figure bringing the party together; or at the very least, an immense crowd puller.
So can the PMLN expect to smooth-sail its way to a return to power?
The party’s Senate majority might be dented due to technical grounds. Though the recent win indicates that Nawaz’s associates are not jumping the ship anytime soon. Yet whether we will see a continuation of what has gone before remains to be seen. At least, in the post-election period. For what if the ‘worst’ were to happen and both Nawaz and Maryam are jailed or exiled once more? There are those who would, then, expect Kusloom Nawaz to take centre stage in terms of carrying on the battle cry against the judiciary. But given her recent health concerns — this appears uncertain.
Which brings us to the man of someone else’s moment: Shehbaz. He is largely seen to be more inclined to work with the security establishment; the timely and recent revelations about his turning down then President-General Musharraf’s purported offer of the premiership back in 2007 notwithstanding. Though whispers along the corridors of power suggest that this is likely off the table. The deep state is said to have lost patience with the House of Sharif. For now, at least.
This may be for the simple reason that where Nawaz speaks of resistance the latter sees insubordination. Especially considering that it was Gen (rtd) Musharraf who overlooked the double life sentence for kidnapping, hijacking and corruption back in 1999 and brokered a deal with the Saudis to give the whole clan warm shelter for a supposed 21-year-period. While the relations between Sharifs and the establishment are strained but both parties, as past events suggest, are flexible when required.
It is going to be a difficult year for the PMLN to hold its control over power but, so far, the party is far from over. *
Published in Daily Times, March 3rd 2018.