A good length for PML-N

October 18, 2020

Party leaders say PML-N went to great lengths to let the PTI serve the people

Have the opposition parties congregating under the umbrella of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) found the best time to challenge the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)? With some respite finally from the dreaded Covid-19 that precluded the possibility of an appeal to the masses to show up on the streets to be counted against the government, the rising prices of essential commodities and the continuing economic slowdown back in debate. Many in the country’s major urban centres are saying the common citizen has never had it worse.

After a series of debates and many disagreements these parties have finally agreed on one point – the political parties must come together to give a tough time to what they call a ‘hybrid regime’. The toughest task in reaching the consensus has been to make the largest opposition party – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to make up its mind. Consider:

Ever since its leader, the three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was disqualified for public office and sent to jail following an accountability case conviction, the party has been in disarray. For nearly two years it has been visibly two groups speaking different languages and acting in different ways but insisting that they represent the same party.

While, the hawks have wanted to take on those who sent their government packing the doves have advocated accommodation and negotiation with the power brokers. The hawks have appeared powerless as formal leadership was taken away from them. The doves enjoyed ascendance for a while and claimed early success when following a period of ‘golden’ silence several party leaders were granted bails and Sharif was allowed to proceed abroad. However, they appear to have lost ground with the feeling setting in that the party’s ‘silence’ is losing it the popular support. Nor have the travails of the opposition leaders willing to go along with the present set up ended.

Finally, it seems, the party has made up its mind and decided to speak out. With some hard-hitting speeches and statements, Nawaz Sharif has stirred the pot. In his address to the Multi-Party Conference hosted by the Pakistan People’s Party he did not mince words. “It’s no longer a state within the state… There is now a state above the state in Pakistan... Our fight is not with Imran Khan. We are taking on those who have brought him” immediately became the defining quote of the event. Launching an onslaught, Sharif left no doubt that he may have been knocked down, but has not been knocked out.

The speech dominated the PDM’s first meeting in Islamabad. Soon political analysts were saying that he had merely said in public what others had long been discussing in their drawing rooms about the government being run by a ‘hybrid regime’. It may be recalled that his party leaders had long appeared reluctant to join the PDM despite immense pressure brought by JUI-F chief Maulana Fazaur Rehman.

PML-N leaders have admitted that the man in the streets had started questioning the silence of the PML-N on the matters of governance and the unprecedented price-hike. There was a buzz that the parliamentary opposition in general and the PML-N in particular had compromised the party’s position on key public issues. The parliamentary party had voted in favour of extension in the tenure of the chief of the army staff and the FATF-related bills.

The leadership of the PML-N, the largest political party in parliamentary opposition, probably believes that the policy of appeasement has failed them. Their leaders have remained targets of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The party has been calling it injustice and victimisation by the government. Recently, PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif was arrested and remanded in the NAB custody.

The doves enjoyed ascendance for a while and claimed early success when following a period of ‘golden’ silence several party leaders were granted bails and Sharif was allowed to proceed abroad. However, they appear to have lost ground.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif has denounced the statements of several ministers on the subject, especially Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. Shahbaz Sharif, she has said, was arrested after he refused to submit to the pressure to part ways with his brother. “Those who had been talking about the birth of a ‘Sheen’ [faction] are frustrated as ‘Sheen’ and ‘Noon’ are truly united and can’t be separated,” Maryam has said.

There is no denying the fact that Nawaz Sharif has the final say in all important matters in the party. As PML-N president, Shahbaz Sharif has been openly advocating appeasement even as his brother Nawaz Sharif has treaded the ‘path’ popular with the voters. For a while, the party workers appeared to be facing a dilemma: were they to follow Nawaz Sharif who had been declared ineligible to contest elections for life and facing a jail term in Al-Azizia case or was Shahbaz in charge? On several occasions, Maryam Nawaz explained this in terms of a difference of opinions within a ‘democratic’ party. Party leaders, she said, had varying opinions and the party respected them all.

According to a senior PML-N leader, after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif the party went through a major crisis of leadership. The vacuum was finally filled by Maryam Nawaz who followed the way of her father although Shahbaz Sharif now headed the party. He says Nawaz Sharif’s Islamabad-Lahore journey via GT Road had earlier boosted the morale of the party workers after months of dispiriting developments. In September 2017 by-election, the election of Kulsoom Nawaz from the NA-120 seat that fell vacant after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was another high-water mark.

In the 2018 general elections, the PML-N managed to win over 60 National Assembly seats. In the Punjab Assembly it was the largest party with 129 seats. However, its senior leaders decided not to try to form a government in the Punjab. “We discussed the situation after 2018 polls and it was resolved that the party should not go for forming the government in view of the precarious economic conditions in the country. The majority agreed that the PTI should be allowed to form a government,” another senior leader told TNS.

After two years in power the PTI government has provided the PML-N and other opposition parties much to talk about in terms of poor performance and bad governance. Since he took charge, Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has been the target of criticism not only from the opposition, but also from within his party. Many PML-N leaders were initially not very vocal against the government, saying they do not need to lambast the PTI aggressively as voters would eventually hold it accountable.

The party is now saying that they have given enough time to the ruling party and now it is time to speak out. Some party stalwarts say this time their leader will not remain a silent spectator to continued interference in the democratic system. His narrative has touched the electorate. The development is disturbing for the powers that be.

Then there are sceptics who point to the Sharif’s record. This is a big test for the Sharifs. One thing is for sure, the party is far from over. It will take a really strong contender to defeat it in its stronghold.

The writer is a senior journalist.

A good length for PML-N