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Opinion

November 7, 2017

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Leadership and the transition process

Leadership and the transition process

Leadership transitions are difficult all over the world. In the US, a generation of Democrats is trying to grapple with the challenge of establishing a post-Clinton Democratic Party – despite eight years of Obama, and the multiple humiliations of having lost to clownish Republican candidates that no one took seriously when they first emerged (first Bush and later Trump).

In the UK, the Labour Party continues to vacillate between Blairite centrism and any number of leaders more robustly committed to leaning left of centre. In India, the Congress Party cannot emerge from the shadow of the Nehru-Gandhi brand, no matter how utterly incompetent the latest generation of that continuum proves itself to be. And as we are seeing in Saudi Arabia, the generational shift that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is trying to lead is not going as smoothly as we may expect in a wealthy monarchy capable of affording the kind of planning that Saudi Arabia needs.

Beyond the big cleavages of power in Pakistan – civil versus military, urban versus rural, PTI versus PML-N – there is an ongoing transition of leadership that began around the previous general election, and that will last for another decade or so. It is the inter-generational transfer of power between old men, in their sixties, and the generations of younger people that they have been able to lead, inspire and disgust for the last three decades.

Nawaz Sharif will turn sixty eight in December. Shahbaz Sharif turned sixty six in September. Imran Khan turned sixty five years old in October. Asif Ali Zardari is the spring chicken in the group, though perhaps in the worst health among the big party leaders, at sixty two.

The country these men are leading, or want to lead is not old and crusty, but young, and dynamic. The median age in Pakistan is under 24. Even under the compromised official definition of ‘urban’, the country is urbanising rapidly.

In 1999, when he was removed from power by General Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif was forty nine years old. He was a relatively young man. He spent his entire forties maneuvering, manipulating and managing power along with Benazir Bhutto, who was four years younger than him.

Civilians must manage and negotiate power with the military, which is, at any given time, led by men in their fifties. The military men that Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had to deal with were no different, all in their late fifties, and some may have seen combat action in the 1971 war, but none enjoyed command during a war.

In stark contrast, the two, three and four star generals of today have fought a war, commanded troops on the field, taken battleground casualties, and attended the funerals of senior and junior brothers and sisters in arms. They have lived through the single most tectonic shift in the military’s internal organisation regime, that has privileged technology, added counter-insurgency to its main skills set, retained an India-focus, and made a substantial investment in information operations and public diplomacy.

All of these factors play a critical role in informing the wider generational leadership transition that is underway. Those of us that are decidedly pro-civilian in our thinking about the acquisition and exercise of power in Pakistan should be more worried than those that are not – because this transition is not going very well.

The most obvious crisis is the one brewing in the PML-N. Let’s get to the churn in Raiwind in a moment, however. Consider the crisis in the PPP, where the three Benazir children maintain a remarkable unity. Yet all is not well in Dubai, or at Bilawal House, or in Nawabshah. Zardari continues to command the party and enjoy unlimited veto powers over its affairs, including the administration of Sindh. More worryingly for those that invest any hope in the younger Bhutto-Zardaris is the ubiquitous influence of Faryal Talpur, affectionately referred to as Adi, and capable of bypassing all four of the Bhutto-Zardaris, when it comes to managing the PPP’s substantial patronage network.

Things in the PTI are less complicated at the top – because absent Imran Khan, there are no family claimants to power. Concurrently, however, there is no clear hierarchy nor any leader with the possibility of filling in with anything remotely representing the Khan’s magic. Pervez Khattak is a brilliant political operative, and will survive both Khan and the PTI. What Jahangir Tareen lacks in brilliance, he enjoys in wealth. Beyond those two however lies a vast, untapped pool of political and technical talent that may not have any Adis, but also lacks a coherent post-Khan plan.

The crises of leadership transition in the PPP or PTI, however, pale in comparison to the nightmare that has befallen the PML-N. The unresolved leadership question is a product of Nawaz Sharif’s betrayal of his brother, who has loyally served brother and party for over a quarter century. It will not be resolved by the enactment of softball interviews in which Maryam Nawaz Sharif comes across as a benevolent princess willing to allow her uncle some face-saving. Conversely, conventional wisdom predicts that Shahbaz Sharif cannot win an election without a picture of his brother alongside him. This may be true in essence, but if Asif Ali Zardari can channel images of a martyred Benazir without having built anything memorable, why wouldn’t Shahbaz Sharif be able to channel the family name on the back of his substantial record of delivery in Punjab?

The wider questions about electability are moot, however, because there are more obvious questions that the Maryam versus Shahbaz dynamic pose. First, in a contested PML-N leadership dynamic, who will lead message delivery for the PML-N and what will the message be? Shahbaz Sharif may want to take a conciliatory tone, but the Nawaz camp’s sees its survival being predicated on confrontation. This isn’t a small difference of approach eight months before an election. It is an existential one. Second, in a contested PML-N leadership dynamic, how will ticket award and allocation go? Easy answer? The incumbents will prevail. Yet we know that incumbency is a curse in many places in Punjab, especially when incumbents will often have been part of either the Maryam or the Shahbaz camp. Local constituency politics is incredibly intricate in Punjab, and those who lose out during ticket award processes will also rebel. Advantage: the PML-N’s substantial galaxy of opponents.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for the PML-N, is the question of Punjab itself. Even if there is a perfectly enacted transition that eases daughter Maryam into a well-deserved five-year vacation from the public domain, and puts brother Shahbaz in Islamabad, the PML-N has no plan and no coherent successor to Shahbaz for Lahore. It cannot be Hamza Shahbaz, who may be a competent political operative, but has neither the charisma of his uncle and cousin nor the work ethic or hunger for delivery of his father. It cannot be Maryam, who may interview well, but has zero hours of experience as a manager or administrator. Attempts to run Punjab by proxy will fail, as the Sharifs learnt from the Dost Mohammad Khosa experiment of 2007-2008. Six months before an election, the PML-N doesn’t know who its PM candidate will be, who its CM Punjab candidate will be, and who will call the shots when Nawaz Sharif decides to fade away.

The bottom line for the PML-N is that it is in an existential crisis that it does not want to contend with. Nawaz Sharif remains the undisputed head of the party, but his failure to delineate a coherent succession plan has helped a once-benign mole turn into a raging malignant tumor. We can blame a trigger-happy Supreme Court judgment and the wider deep state for accelerating the tumor’s growth, but it is and has been a House of Sharifs production through and through.

As the three largest parties continue to try to muddle through these leadership transitions, will obscurantists, and interventionists seek to take advantage? Many would say they already are.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

www.mosharrafzaidi.com

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