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April 17, 2018

Shahbaz faces serious challenges

Top Story

April 17, 2018

Pakistan Muslim League-N President and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, during his visit to Karachi, admitted that the party and the government were passing through a difficult time, and he was facing daunting challenges ahead of Elections-2018. However, he was confident that if provided “level playing field”, his party would retain its position.

At present, his two biggest challenges are: increasing differences and problems in his party and confusion over party's narrative. "Yes, there are serious challenges ahead and I am trying to resolve it," he told the writer during a meeting with him in Karachi.

During his first visit to Karachi after being elected the party president, he got the news, really disturbing for him, that the Supreme Court had ordered trial court to complete Model Town trial within 15 days, and exchange of sour statements between Maryam Nawaz and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

When the writer asked him whether he thought situation was heading from “Minus one to Minus two formula”, he gave a guarded reply, but added that there were challenges for him.

He once again stressed the need for a "grand dialogue” among all stakeholders for harmony among institutions, but when a questioner asked as to who will take the initiative, moderate voice of Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed rescued him, saying parliament had already taken the initiative, a clear reference to army chief, General Qamar Bajwa's address to Senate, few months back.

Shahbaz came to Karachi along with soft spoken Punjab government spokesman, Malik Ahmad Khan, hardliner Syed Mushahidullah and moderate Mushahid Hussain Syed, and few other party leaders, giving a clear indication of policy of political reconciliation.

His biggest challenge seems to be the problems within the party and its narrative, rising defections of electables and above all his own political survival at a time when dozens of inquiries, particularly by NAB, are under way against vocal PML-N voices in Punjab like Khwaja Saad Rafique, Talal Chaudhry, Danyal Aziz, Khwaja Mohammad Asif and others.

Sources close to Shahbaz hinted that July 2018 election will be PML-N's toughest in Punjab, not only because of PTI, but also of some other factors. "Pressure on Shahbaz is quite disturbing for the party, as he is the only hope for them after Nawaz," he added.

Model Town case day-to-day hearing and reports about incorporating Justice Baqar Najafi's report in the trial, if true, is not good news for the PML-N and Shahbaz Sharif, himself.

While he held several meetings with Chaudhry Nisar, lasting several hours, last one on Sunday, he also tried to convince party Quaid, Mian Nawaz Sharif that Nisar's exit from the PML-N would be disastrous. He knows that it would also be very difficult for him to go ahead and lead the party in elections without Chaudhry Nisar.

In his policy of reconciliation, he wants both Ch Nisar and Pervaiz Rasheed to be part of the PML-N in the next elections, something which at present looked a daunting task for him.

While he looked confident of winning the next elections on the basis of his government’s performance in Punjab, it was clear that a number of PML-N electables have already joined the PTI, while others are in touch, sensing the problems of Sharifs and PML-N before the next elections.

With Nawaz Sharif already disqualified for life and facing possible conviction, reports of inquiries against Shahbaz and Model Town trial would determine whether the party could remain intact or not, if the other Sharif is also caught.

The PML-N vote bank might be intact or even has increased, but the party would be in complete disarray if something happens to Shahbaz too.

Despite his health problems, he looks very fit and active as in one day. In Karachi, he addressed party workers, met several political leaders from different parties in a bid to form a future anti-PPP alliance in Sindh, but a pro-active role of NAB in Punjab before polls is a matter of concern for him. What was disappointing for him was the fact that none of the former PML leaders like Syed Ghous Ali Shah were ready to rejoin the PML.

His first and foremost task is to get himself out of the problem to give more confidence to the PML workers and voters, reunite the party by removing confusion and differences, to stop defection of electables and to be more clear over the question of political narrative of Nawaz Sharif and the change he wants to bring about in that narrative.

What happened in Balochistan and in southern Punjab is also an indication that all is not well for the PML leadership and Shahbaz Sharif. With Nawaz Sharif taking a rigid stand on dissidents or those not ready to stand by in difficult times, the task of Shahbaz Sharif looks more difficult.

These political developments certainly boost the PTI and Imran Khan's chances, but a veteran party leader has cautioned Imran and PTI before the next elections. "We have to be very careful in accepting everyone in the party from the PML-N and the PPP. This can hurt the PTI workers and local leaders, if these electables were also given tickets," he said, on condition of anonymity.

The PML-N might be down, but they are not out of the race and still are ahead in Punjab, he added. In the next 90 days, we may see a battle of nerves between Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan, the two strongest contenders for the top slot after 2018 elections.

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

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

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