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Islamabad

September 21, 2018

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Dilemma of Sharifs

A temporary but a significant relief for the Sharif family as the Islamabad High Court’s two-member bench suspended the conviction of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and retired Capt Safdar till the final decision on the appeal against the original decision, which is still pending. The decision came at a time when the three had returned to jail after attending the funeral of former first lady Begum Kulsoom Nawaz.

There is still a long way to go for the Sharifs, particularly for Nawaz, who still has to come out clean in other two references even if he gets some relief in the appeal. So the PML-N needs to control its nerves as well as emotions. One has to wait and see what important decisions will Nawaz take regarding party's future strategy, but it is very unlikely that he would be addressing public meetings or rallies because of the death of his spouse. For Shahbaz Sharif, it is important how to reunite the opposition.

We know all about Shahbaz's administrative skill and his successor in Punjab, Usman Buzdar, so far is not very impressive. But at the same time, his skills as opposition leader are under heavy scrutiny and so far he has failed even to unite the opposition.

So the 100 days are not only a test for Prime Minister Imran Khan's government but also for Shahbaz as leader of the opposition. Can Imran set his government directions and Shahbaz of opposition's?

I am not very sure of the outcome of the parliamentary commission on alleged rigging in the July 25 elections. Here too, the role of Shahbaz will be tested and the government by constituting the commission has put the burden of proof on the disjointed opposition. How can a commission with equal numbers from government and opposition reach a consensus whether elections were rigged or not?

So how the opposition under Shahbaz would be able to place record before the commission and that too in the presence of already pending petitions on rigging before Election Tribunals?

Shahbaz and the PML-N so far have not been able to bring the entire opposition on one platform even on a minimum agenda. Besides the PML-N has so far confined its protest within the assemblies and their reaction on the mini budget is also limited to the 'in-house protest’. But in the next couple of weeks, the government intends to bring major amendments in the local governments’ law, which would be close to that of Local Government Act 2001.

The PTI government along with its allies, particularly PML-Q, intends to consolidate their position through local bodies in Punjab. While Hamza Shahbaz, leader of the opposition in Punjab Assembly, has warned of strong protest, situation on the ground is quite different. It will also be a test for the PML-N as an opposition party.

Late Begum Kulsoom Nawaz was a binding force particularly in a difficult time. Her death after prolong illness has certainly created a vacuum within the PML-N as she had kept the party united after Oct 12, 1999 till 2001 and had Sharifs not opted for the ‘Dubai deal’, former president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf could have faced a much difficult position.

She is no more and two most vocal voices of the party, Nawaz and Maryam, are in jail and even if they get relief in one or two case, there are still a few inquires pending. So Nawaz now expect Shahbaz to play a more active role as opposition leader.

Begum Kulsoom Nawaz’s funeral and across-the-board presence of political leadership could be the starting point for political reconciliation, especially among the opposition parties. No doubt it was not only a grand but national funeral to pay rich tribute to the former first lady for her contributions towards restoration of democratic order.

It was her strength and role which brought leaders like Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat and others to Raiwind for condolence. The PTI's government’s response was also very positive and appreciated by the Sharif family as well.

Now it is business as usual but one could feel the impact of her death, which brought the political temperature down, even if it is for a few weeks. Those, who attended the funeral and met Nawaz Sharif, said he looked down but composed. For Maryam, it was a huge loss and her death practically broken her.

The family knows what is ahead for them and also that it’s a long journey as their opponent Imran Khan has a firm grip on power and also enjoys the confidence of other institutions.

Who knows Shahbaz – his strengths and weaknesses – better than the brother who had groomed him? The other person in whom Shahbaz had a lot of confidence but he is no more in the PML-N was Chaudhry Nisar who attended Begum Kulsoom's funeral prayers in London and sources said they also met.

How politics has reshaped in the last few years made things difficult for the two mainstream political parties, PPP and PML-N, and both are struggling to find space for them at the centre stage. It’s now up to the PTI government and Imran whether he would consolidate his position or commit a mistake which could provide space to the opposition to regain the lost confidence.

Perhaps, both want to give time to Imran, not because they want to give but they themselves facing problems within and also with those who matters in our system.

What happened to the PML-N from 2013 to 2018 was quite unexpected and it appeared as if the party and the Sharif family were not mentally prepared. Both faced problems with an independent judiciary and misread the mood of other important institution as well. Political developments also created a huge gulf between them over the fallout of Karachi operation, in particular.

The situation reached a point where even 'regret' could not break the ice. It even changed the whole attitude and political approach of a person like Zardari even at the cost of losing chairman, senate and president's elections.

One has to wait and see the follow up of the visit of Zardari and Bilawal to Raiwind. They not only offered condolences but also shared their respective agony. Zardari recalled why he accepted parole to visit her ailing mother, while Nawaz termed his absence at the time of Begum Kulsoom’s death as most painful.

Many critics of the Sharifs think that Shahbaz is a weak person and could not resist pressure, but only recently one of the lawyers of the Sharif in 1999-2000 hijacking case disclosed that it was Shahbaz who resisted and insisted that he doesn't want to leave Pakistan.

“I was in Karachi when the decision was suddenly taken to release Sharifs and send them to Saudi Arabia. I was told by the then senior jail official of Landhi prison that the man who resisted and was not ready to go was Shahbaz Sharif,” he said.

Can Shahbaz prove his critics wrong by leading a united opposition instead as a PML-N leader? He also has a challenge ahead to ensure victory for the party in the by-elections.

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

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

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