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National

July 9, 2017

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The future of PML-N

The future of PML-N

Whether Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), country's biggest political party, would remain intact or face defections in the post-Panama verdict would depend on the future of political strategy of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has so far kept the party's rank and file intact. The future of PML-N is linked with politics of Sharifs.

Ever since Panama hit the headlines in April last year, and even after Supreme Court five-member bench decision, the party apparently stood behind Sharif. Will the situation remain the same after the developments in the next few weeks would be interesting to watch, but there are reasons to believe that the PML-N may not face major defections even if Sharif decides to fight a long legal and political battle.

The party remained united when Sharif showed defiance after October 12, 1999 coup, but split when the family decided to go into exile after a controversial deal for 10 years, in 2000. Even then the major faction remained in PML-N and the party regained its position.

Sharif apparently is in a defiant mood, though circumstances are different and his government has no threat and the party could carry the burden, but his moral and political position may come under question if the SC decision, in the light of the JIT report, leads to a reference or trial.

Since Panama he had defended his position in different ways by twice addressing the nation and Parliament and presenting himself and his family for accountability. He did everything except for opting for an option to step down, which many believe would have raised his stature as a leader and a politician.

When Sharif was elected for the third time as prime minister, after the 2013 elections, he already had a strong challenger, Imran Khan who after the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, took the centre stage in politics and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the second largest party.

However, the PML-N completely holds its strength in Punjab, while the PTI wiped out ANP and JUI-F in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa while the PPP was confined to Sindh. Balochistan's traditional politics remained intact. In Balochistan, Sharif did the right thing by forming alliance with the National Party (NP) through a workable formula.

In the last four years, there had been no attempts to dislodge any provincial governments through different means, something positive in politics.

The PTI did not allowed the PML-N to settle down and Sharif also mishandled the political situation, which allowed certain quarters to give momentum to the PTI election rigging campaign, which led to 126-day sit-in in 2014.

Earlier, an incident of Model Town, in which 14 workers of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) were killed, also goes down as a dark chapter in the history of the PML government.

The PTI and Imran Khan too fallen in a trap and went too far in the campaign. It ended when a judicial commission concluded that 2013 elections were not rigged, to ensure the PML victory.

The PML-N consolidated its position when it won most of the by-elections in Punjab. As everything was going in Sharif's favour except that he badly mishandled the PPP in Sindh's case, thanks to some of the policies and approaches of his ministers. The Panama leaks in April 2016, gave a new life to the PTI and Imran Khan, who was depressed after the judicial commission findings in the rigging case.

Panama leaks came at a time when the PML government had completed its three years in power. What happened in the last one year, has given a real political and moral boost to the PTI in particular, which did not allow the case to die down.

Had Sharif opted for Parliamentary solution to the problem, he would have been in a much stronger political and moral position then he is today. While the PPP criticised the PTI for going to the Supreme Court, it now appeared as Imran, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and Sirajul Haq's move to file a petition has now put the PML and Sharifs in a difficult position.

The year 2017 is perhaps the most difficult for Sharif, but he still holds the key to ensure that the PML-N completes its tenure. It may not be easy if the SC judgment leads to his trial or filing of a reference.

One thing is for sure, the next general elections would be based on Panama outcome, and the PML-N claims about its development schemes. The PTI and Imran will go to polls with the claims that due to their movement, the PM and his family faced accountability, while the PML-N would call it a conspiracy against Sharif, continuing from day one when he came to power in 2013.

The PML-N conspiracy theory revolved around the way the PTI and Imran Khan had been given boost and promoted as an alternative. The party leaders now see the JIT formation and working as a conspiracy, but short of pointing any direct finger. 

Any adverse decision like a reference or trial would further increase moral and political pressure on him and at this point, sources said, the PM would take the decisive decision about his own fate.

A source told this writer that there is still a division on plan B, which includes that Sharif would step down as PM if the decision is pronounced against him and he would nominate someone else within the PML-N as the PM. However, if as a consequences something goes against Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the party feels that whole family would be affected, the PML-N could go for an agitation, and take to the street irrespective of the political outcome.

Many of Sharif's critics and opponents believe that the PML-N would be divided and some had even predicted major defection by major players, situation on ground at the moment is somewhat different.

Some party leaders believe that much depends on Sharif's own strategy. "Party was intact even under Musharraf from 1999 to 2001 and had the family not gone into exile, it would have been intact and perhaps would have been in a much stronger position to dislodge Musharraf, said a senior PML-N leader, on condition of anonymity.

Today, it is neither martial law nor any military rule like that of Musharraf in the country. It is PML-N government and the PM and his family are facing a case in the Supreme Court. This is also not the SC of the past but the one which we all consider as an independent judiciary, which has already sent one PM home six years back and now another PM's fate hangs in the balance.

Therefore, the chance of major defection in the party could only be possible in case both Sharifs face political exit or due to power struggle within the PML-N or in the family. The party at present appears to be standing behind Nawaz Sharif, but the real test will be after the final verdict and more importantly, how Sharif reacts and decides about his line of action.

There are a lot of Chaudhrys in the PML-N, but none like the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, who created the PML-Q, only after Musharraf assured them victory in Punjab in 2002, something which also laid the foundation of differences between Musharraf and Imran Khan, who was expecting backing for his party, as once revealed by the late Meraj Mohammad Khan, former secretary general of the PTI.

So, ball is in the Sharif's court as far as the PML-N’s political future is concerned. It depends on how Sharif will take the party into the next elections irrespective of the outcome of the JIT report and the SC verdict on it.

Maryam's appearance, reception and media talk could be a political indicator of the PML-N, possible future leader, but it is still a long way to go as most of the PML-N veteran believe that Sharif has decided to fight a long legal and political battle and he would not surrender.

These are testing times for the PML-N and Sharifs. It is also a test for Nawaz Sharif's political sagacity as to how he reacts and faces the situation. How he will keep his allies together till the next elections. In case he steps down as the PM, whom he will nominate. In case of Maryam, it would be quite an emotional election in Lahore.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

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