Last week PML-N displayed some street power after a long time. Keeping this in mind, what is in store for the party?
It’s curtains for three times former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, unless he wins the last legal battle i.e. review petition against his ten-year conviction and disqualification for life.
On Tuesday he returned to Kot Lakhpat jail after his six-week bailout package expired on May 7. His party, PML-N has vowed to keep his political legacy alive. The question is how?
The political future of his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, brother Shahbaz Sharif, and nephew Hamza Shahbaz also hangs in the balance as the family and the party are now working on a somewhat middle-of-the-road way to start a new protest movement after abandoning their ‘silent narrative.’ Question is, can they do it
PML-N politics is back on the streets as reflected in the way party workers took their leaders from Raiwind to Kot Lakpath in a procession in what looks like a clear defiance of the powers that be. Interestingly, Hamza was in the driving seat, Nawaz next to him and Maryam in the back, with hawkish Pervaiz Rasheed holding the mike.
In the last two years former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has followed both an aggressive and a silent policy but nothing has got him any relief and in the end he is now back at Kot Lakpath, the prison that has hosted many political prisoners, including the powerful former PM, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
All now depends on younger brother Shahbaz Sharif who is expected to return next week to lead the party with a re-organised setup in which for the first time Maryam Nawaz also holds the important portfolio of vice-president. What new strategy will Shahbaz Sharif follow, considering his ‘silent narrative‘ could not rescue Nawaz.
Can he take the risk of adopting the G.T Road path or will he go for some ‘middle-way‘ in which PML-N may come on the street after Eid along with PPP and JUI-F but while avoiding attacking the establishment and judiciary. Instead, it will go all out against PTI and PM Imran Khan, considered as the main hurdle between the Sharifs and the establishment. The PM has stated time and again that there would be no ‘NRO’ for Sharif or Zardari.
This leaves PML-N with little option but to take the risk of going all out. Street agitation has never been in the DNA of these leaguers who traditionally go with the establishment but the recent street show could give a new direction to the party. Its purpose was to boost the confidence of its workers and supporters who had been suffering a low morale after the ex-premier’s takedown by the Supreme Court, JIT and NAB, and at some level it succeeded.
About two years back the party was divided over how to react to the Supreme Court verdict. Once the closest aides of Nawaz Sharif, former Interior Minister Ch. Nisar Ali Khan and some others ‘advised him‘ to avoid the anti-judiciary and anti-establishment line as it would not be possible to challenge them under the present circumstances. But he accepted the hawkish view within the party like that of Pervez Rasheed and Mushahidullah that there is no other option left but to challenge them on the streets as he would not get any relief even if he remained silent. But ever since the PTI has taken over, the PML-N has remained largely quiet.
What happened on Tuesday gave a clear hint that Nawaz Sharif and those who backed his narrative now believe that the only option left for them is to come on the street, meaning a revival of G.T Road politics as they believe that Shahbaz Sharif’s silent narrative has not worked out. The latter has also been asked to return and there is a remote possibility that the party may ask him to continue as Chairman Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and lead the campaign along with Maryam Nawaz, now officially one of the 15 vice-presidents, but essentially the de facto leader of the party. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is the only senior vice-president of the PML-N.
So, what different approach will the party adopt to keep pace of expected aggressive politics after Eid? A well informed PML-N source confirmed that unlike the pre-election G.T road campaign the leadership would not attack the establishment or judiciary but the focus would be the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Prime Minister Imran Khan. In a way it will be somewhat of a ‘middle-way,’ as some within the party still see a dim light at the end of the tunnel for Sharif’s return and release.
However, confusion within the party persists as reflected from the brief statement of the ex-premier before he returned to prison, "Everyone knows why I was punished." His beloved daughter, Maryam Nawaz, who many see as the one who would be leading the campaign did not speak to party supporters, either during the rally or after saying goodbye to her father.
Now all eyes are on Shahbaz Sharif as he has been told not only to return - and he is likely to be back before the national budget - but to lead the party in accordance with the new strategy i.e. street protest after Eid.
He is also expected to open the debate on the budget in the National Assembly. More importantly the party has withheld his earlier decision of resigning as Chairman Public Accounts Committee. The resignation has not been sent to the speaker and he has been asked to retain the position because of the possible division on the name of Rana Tanvir, nominated by him as his replacement, while Khawaja Mohammad Asif may continue as Parliamentary leader in the National Assembly.
With almost all the top leaders of the PML-N facing serious cases, mostly from NAB, the biggest problem which the party is facing is who can lead the party with the same aggression as that of Nawaz and Maryam, if those two lose the legal battle in the final review, and do not go for a ‘plea-bargain’ or pardon. Prime Minister Imran Khan and PTI would like to see all of them in jail including Maryam, Shahbaz, Hamza Shahbaz, Khawaja Saad Rafiq (already in jail), Khawaja Mohammad Asif and Shahid Khaqan.
The major reshuffle in the PML-N organisational set-up was made keeping the anti-government campaign in mind. The 16 vice-presidents include both Nawaz and Shahbaz’s people, as well as some veterans like Sardar Mehtab Abbasi, Pervez Rasheed, Mushahidullah and others.
Secondly, PML-N also knows that the government now looks serious in holding local body elections by the end of this year and intends to maneuver the administration and bureaucracy in its favour before the polls, which would be nothing new as the previous governments have also always done the same.
The new local body law looks quite positive and credit for this certainly goes to the PTI government, particularly the idea of direct elections for mayors in urban centers would generate healthy political activity. In a way PTI has also taken a risk as PML-N still has strong roots in local bodies.
PTI had lost the last local body elections against the PML-N in 2014 as well as the Cantonment elections in Punjab.
PML-N is confident of performing well in the forthcoming LB polls as it claims people have rejected the PTI government and its policies. Imran Khan, on the other hand has told his party leaders that if he succeeds in putting the Sharifs and Zardaris in jail people would support him, and it would also help the party in Local Body polls.
However, in private conversations many PTI leaders including MNAs and MPAs are disturbed over the price hike and believe that if the party does not review this policy, people will not vote for it next time. "To be very honest people are disappointed with us and though they still want to give us a chance but every day they ask us when the prices will come down," a central party leader told me.
Therefore, with fast-changing political developments in the country it’s not only ‘make and break‘ for the Sharif family and the party but also for PTI.
Nawaz Sharif is not Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, nor does he have the kind of disadvantage which Zulfiqar Ali Bhutoo had, like Martial Law in the country or PCO Judges. In Sharif’s case the judiciary, at least on the face of it seems quite independent. However, many lawyers and jurists did question the way he was disqualified by the superior court and then convicted by NAB.
It is still a long way to go but as things stand today its curtains for Nawaz Sharif, if not for all Sharifs.