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Saturday April 20, 2024

The jury is out on why Nawaz abdicated

Maryam Nawaz tried to clarify that her father remains in the political realm

By Zebunnisa Burki
February 15, 2024
PMLN supremo Nawaz Sharif looks on while speaking to his supporters. — Facebook/Nawaz Sharif
PMLN supremo Nawaz Sharif looks on while speaking to his supporters. — Facebook/Nawaz Sharif  

KARACHI: There’s a split verdict among political analysts on whether Nawaz Sharif had returned to Pakistan knowing he may not make it as PM for the fourth time, though they all agree that his focus now is his daughter’s political future.

With the PML-N announcing that party leader Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif had nominated Shehbaz Sharif for the post of prime minister and Maryam Nawaz for the Punjab chief minister, many had spelled this as the virtual end of Nawaz Sharif’s political career. On Wednesday, Maryam Nawaz tried to clarify that her father remains in the political realm and “will not only do vigorous politics but will patronize his governments in the federation and Punjab”.

The News reached out to political analysts to ask them how they see this latest development in the fortunes (or otherwise) of the House of Sharif and what the point was of Nawaz returning to Pakistan if he was not going to be the prime minister again.

Journalist and political analyst Suhail Warraich says that Nawaz was under no misconceptions regarding a possible fourth stint as prime minister: “[Nawaz] was definitely told that he would be the prime minister and that the establishment had changed its mind and was ready to undo what had been done to him. That was the assurance based on which he came back.”

For Raza Rumi, editor of The Friday Times-NayaDaur, the PML-N supremo had returned to Pakistan “to mobilize the voter base that was despondent due to the disastrous policies adopted by Shehbaz Sharif administration (April 2022-August 2023) and the abdication of politics of resistance.” Rumi dismisses any theory that says that Nawaz Sharif has been deliberately kept out of office, adding that the PML-N “was beaten black and blue in its strongholds of central Punjab, and its image has been dented due to Shehbaz Sharif’s pro-establishment narratives. The mood on the street for years has been anti-establishment and Imran Khan has successfully sensed the moment.”

When Nawaz was returning to Pakistan, no one had even considered the possibility that he wouldn’t become prime minister again, says journalist Hassan Iftikhar who adds also that “Nawaz’s return, these elections -- all of this was hardly accidental and must have been planned”. In fact, quips Iftikhar, “One thing that is said about Nawaz is that he has never opted for half-baked options. He would not have made a plan to return without ensuring all conversations with the power corridors were finalised. The idea behind his return was to become PM for a final term with his daughter becoming the CM of Punjab, and doing some work so his daughter could reap the benefits of that too.”

There is a contrary view here though. Journalist and political analyst Asma Shirazi says that she does not think Nawaz came back to be the prime minister. According to Shirazi, “People were shown something different when in fact things had been settled from before -- because Nawaz does want a political future for his daughter and being the chief minister of a province like Punjab is not a small thing. This is probably why one also saw a deliberately less interested Nawaz in these elections; he seemed more interested in Maryam’s future than his own.”

So is the plan now for Nawaz Sharif to take on the persona of the ‘grand old man’ of Pakistan’s politics? Become the queen-maker for his daughter?

Yes, say our analysts, Asma Shirazi explaining that, while this current strategy “may not have been the best one, because for the Noon voter Nawaz holds a special place, I think the way forward now for him is that he would like to focus on Punjab now. With his daughter on the throne there, he may like to make sure that he plays a role in strengthening her and Noon’s position in Punjab. While she may be the CM, Nawaz will likely play a strong role in Punjab’s politics now.”

Warraich agrees: “This is mainly why he has not taken the PM slot. He will sit here in Lahore and focus on Maryam’s politics now.” Raza Rumi offers a more detailed view on this. According to him, “Contrary to the social media hype on Nawaz’s retirement, he is going to be the supreme leader and guide for his party especially his daughter who now faces a major challenge of governing Punjab.”

Rumi feels that Nawaz now “faces the greatest challenge of his career, even more than his repeated ousters, exile and jail. He has to secure his legacy as a democrat and retain his popular base that seems to have shrunk over time. And he faces a wave of populism aided by technology.” The irony in all this? Per Rumi, the fact that “Sharif’s anti-establishment narrative has been adopted by Imran Khan who was once the favourite of junta.”

So what will Nawaz Sharif’s post-2024 politics be all about? Iftikhar answers simply with: “What can his politics be? On the one side is Imran’s populist narrative and on the other is Mian Sahib, an old man now, and representing an older generation in politics. Even Nawaz’s voter is becoming older like him. As are some of his own party members. These are oldies; their time is coming to an end in politics.”

He points out that “Election 2024 has badly affected the careers of two senior political leaders -- Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif’s future almost all of it politically seems over and Imran Khan at least for the foreseeable future seems to be on the sidelines. The era of populist prime ministers seems to be over.”

But Warraich cautions that the “politics of the PML-N may suffer because the face of the PML-N was Nawaz Sharif while Shehbaz was a good administrator, I feel that without Nawaz’s vision, the party will have to struggle to remain strong. Nawaz will now be more of a spiritual guide. In fact his role had been minimizing over the years with Shehbaz and Hamza having taken over Punjab over the years. However, the PML-N’s vote bank was always related to him. Now the vote bank will have to look elsewhere.”

What about the much-trumpeted ‘deal’? Was there or was there not a deal in place for Nawaz to be prime minister one last time? Asma Shirazi doesn’t think so and feels Nawaz had come back to Pakistan with the current situation in mind. For Shirazi, the PML-N had “showed a different product so to speak to the voter but on opening the box, the voter realised it holds something different. One could say this is a sort of deception as well with the voter.”Suhail Warraich is of another mind on this, adding that “there was a deal but it didn’t work because the party couldn’t muster the support expected from it. Its voter didn’t come out.”

“This is the perfect situation for the establishment”, Iftikhar tells The News. According to him, “It suits them to have a government in which no party has a majority and there is a prime minister like Shehbaz Sharif who will be compliant. While I’m not sure if this was a deal beforehand, it may have been in the minds of the establishment.”