PML-N’s disappearing act

March 22, 2020

Is the meeting between six PML-N MPAs and Punjab’s chief minister, Usman Buzdar, and Maryam Nawaz breaking her silence, reflective of the party’s uncertainty about its political course ahead?

Maryam Nazaz, after a long break.

It has been over a week since Maryam Nawaz, vice president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), spoke to the media in Islamabad, breaking a long silence that had been the subject of much speculation regarding the party’s political narrative. But while the news of internal strife in the party’s Punjab cadres has been making the rounds, the party’s top leadership appears to be making calculated moves in contrast to the political aggression it has been recently associated with.

The debate over whether the PML-N’s aggressive stance against the Establishment, spearheaded by Maryam Nawaz, was the right political course for a party struggling to survive in a hostile environment even before the 2018 general elections, has been going on for some time.

The growing unease over such aggression has opened up the debate on its efficacy for the party’s functioning in the long term. With Shehbaz Sharif out of the country, party leaders in the Punjab have started pushing for clarity. Insiders claim many party leaders, especially in the Punjab, have felt abandoned and isolated.

With the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) largely governing without facing solid political opposition, those reservations may have some ground. Recently, there was much speculation surrounding the meeting between six PML-N MPAs and Punjab’s chief minister, Usman Buzdar. The PTI’s portrayal of the meeting as one where opposition members expressed “complete confidence in the leadership of PM Imran Khan and CM Usman Buzdar” while offering unconditional support to the government appears to have aggravated the situation. An explanation was sought from the said party members. One of those is MPA Nishat Ahmad Daha.

“I haven’t left the party. All I am saying is the party needs to be taken care of. Whether it is Shehbaz Sharif or Maryam Nawaz, someone needs to step forward,” Daha tells The News on Sunday. Daha says he has sent his explanation to the party regarding his meeting with Punjab’s CM, clarifying that he had gone to discuss the development allocation for his constituency.

The meeting of PML-N leaders.

Daha insists that the party’s top leadership needs to get its act together. “When people say the Punjab and Pakistan need an administrator like Shehbaz Sharif especially in the current crisis, I cannot agree more. The party also needs him,” he says. “Maryam also spoke and then disappeared again. We are asking that they come forward and steer the party in some direction.”

The PML-N’s Punjab Advisory Committee held a meeting on March 19 in which they decided to move disqualification references in the Election Commission of Pakistan against three of the six MPAs, including Daha, Ashraf Ansari and Ghayaas ud Din. Azma Bokhari, PML-N Punjab’s spokesperson confirmed the decision, adding that legal proceedings will be initiated in this regard. She said the other three MPAs Faisal Niazi, Muhammad Arshad and Azhar Abbas have been asked to reappear before the disciplinary committee.

Earlier this month, PML-N stalwart Rana Sanaullah, while speaking to the media had said that Shehbaz Sharif would return to the country by the end of this month. But while that has not been denied, will it really address the larger question regarding PML-N’s politics?

Earlier this month, PML-N stalwart Rana Sanaullah, said that Shehbaz Sharif would return to the country by the end of this month. But while that has not been denied, will it really address the larger question regarding PML-N’s politics?

Mazhar Abbas, journalist and political analyst, believes that while there may be some restlessness over the issue of Shehbaz Sharif’s return, his capacity to lead the party is the real challenge for the PML-N. “He has the capacity to be a great administrator but as the leader of opposition and party leader, there is a lot to be desired. This could probably be PML-N’s biggest mistake,” he says.

With Shehbaz Sharif’s politics of compromise managing to prevail initially in the form of relief offered for Nawaz Sharif, who is currently being treated in London, Abbas says the situation is no longer the same. “Instead the party’s politics appears to be hurt.” He says the narrative of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz seems to be holding ground. “Now they are thinking that maybe we should go back to Nawaz’s narrative but probably not as aggressively as Maryam’s.”

But it’s not just Maryam Nawaz. Some leaders of the party who had been arrested by the country’s accountability watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), now appear to be leading the party’s narrative. They include Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal both of whom Maryam Nawaz had recently met. Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said in a recent interview that Maryam Nawaz’s stance is what allowed her to gain traction among the masses and make political space in the party. It was Abbasi who, earlier this week, held an aggressive sounding press conference along with other PML-N leaders, including Rana Sanaullah, Ahsan Iqbal and Marriyum Aurangzeb, lambasting the government over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“They are waiting for the right time,” says Suhail Warraich, journalist and political analyst, while explaining the PML-N’s political strategy. Warraich explains that with the party believing itself to be the only opposition, and perhaps the only other option, they are waiting for things to turn sour between the PTI and the Establishment. As for their lack of political presence, he says that the party plans to strike when things change. “Till then they see no point in wasting energy in jail time?”

Ahsan Iqbal believes that the “where is the PML-N leadership?” question is one sponsored by the PTI. “There is no urgency or demand from within the party,” he says while dismissing reports of internal friction. Speaking to TNS, Iqbal says the party is functioning properly, adding that Khwaja Asif is steering parliamentary politics, while Abbasi and Iqbal himself are working on coordination and political matters.

As for Maryam Nawaz’s silence, Iqbal says, “They will arrest her the minute she gets aggressive. She has spent time in jail so this isn’t something new for her”. But, he says, she doesn’t want to be the source of any news that will bring distress to Nawaz Sharif at this point.

Regarding criticism over the PML-N’s uncertain political course, Iqbal says the party wants to wait till the budget season to allow the government to “perform” and be exposed. “The budget will be a report card of this government’s performance,” he says, adding that post-budget all opposition leaders should sit together. “The opposition should find a meaningful re-set, which means not just holding free and fair elections but also a system based on the implementation of democracy as defined in our constitution.”

*Update: Shehbaz Sharif, president of PML-N, made a sudden announcement on Saturday evening about returning to Pakistan. His announcement came in wake of the government's decision to suspend all international flights from March 21 to April 4 as part of measures being taken to curtail the spread of coronavirus. In a recorded video message prior to his departure, Sharif said it had been his intention to stay with Nawaz Sharif, who is undergoing medical treatment in London; but, as the opposition leader, he felt it was his responsibility to return before air traffic was suspended – a decision supported by his elder brother. Sharif arrived in Pakistan in the early hours of Sunday (today).

The writer is a staff  member

PML-N’s disappearing act