Sharifs’ power play: Shahbaz chief, but Nawaz still supreme

Columnist  | Zahid Hussain

Opinion, Columnists

The most serious concern for senior party leaders at the moment is how to stop the party from fragmentation.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

The mantle of the PML(N) leadership has apparently been passed on to the younger Sharif, the ubiquitous chief minister of Pakistan’s most powerful province, but the real power continues to lie with the elder Sharif endorsed by the party as its “Quaid for life”. Notwithstanding the recent court ruling, Nawaz Sharif stays at the helm of the ruling party.

Indeed, the nominal change became unavoidable after the Supreme Court struck yet again, barring the former Prime Minister from leading the party. The elevation of Shahbaz Sharif has also been necessitated not only in order to meet the legal requirement but also to maintain unity within the party as the general election approaches.

However, Shahbaz’s ascendancy is not likely to tilt the balance of power within the ruling party to the other branch of the family as is being anticipated. It is hard to envisage how much influence and power the younger Sharif could have under the overwhelming shadow of his elder brother that is not going to fade away and the niece who has emerged as the party’s populist face of defiance. In this situation, Shahbaz will just be a figurehead in his capacity as the party’s interim head.

Shahbaz had come very close to being crowned when Nawaz was unceremoniously removed from the country’s highest public office that caused him to be stripped of the party leadership too. But an amendment in the electoral rules restored Nawaz’s presidency. The latest court decision against him has, however, changed the situation yet again.

So the dice is cast in favour of Shahbaz though it is not to the liking of the dominating side of the family. The political cleavage between the two Sharifs is too obvious to ignore and may further intensify with the impending court decision in graft cases against Nawaz and his family likely to be announced in the next few weeks.

The most serious concern for senior party leaders at the moment is how to stop the party from fragmentation. Under the circumstances, Shahbaz appears best placed not only to lead the party but also to be a candidate for PM if the PML(N) returns to power in the coming elections. But it will still be Nawaz calling the shots. This dichotomy of power within the party may have its own perils. The differences between the two Sharifs are too serious to be resolved.

A big question, however, is whether the mercurial and extremely temperamental leader who may have proved a good administrator at the provincial level can also deliver on the national stage. Shahbaz is not a charismatic and populist figure who can lead the party to an electoral victory without his older and more popular brother on his side. In such a situation, he will have to walk a tightrope balancing his moderate approach and Nawaz’s confrontational politics.

Meanwhile, Shahbaz has also been overshadowed by the rising populist image of Maryam who has emerged as the main crowd puller at PML(N) rallies. Even PML(N) leaders sceptical of her aggressive stance towards the judges and the security establishment concede that her relentless campaign has infused new life into the party.

So it may not be smooth sailing for the pretender to the throne as the party ranks are torn between two conflicting approaches. While most potential party candidates in the coming elections may not support the clash of institutions that could jeopardise the polls, they also know that they need Nawaz and his daughter to win the votes.

Notwithstanding Nawaz’s defiance, the challenges for the ruling party are getting more serious. The Election Commission of Pakistan’s move to keep the PML(N) out of the Senate elections following the SC’s order declaring all decisions of the party taken under Nawaz’s presidency illegal has shattered the party’s hope of achieving a majority in the Upper House of Parliament.

The candidates put up by the PML(N) can stand as independents and join any party after winning the seat — it is not sure how many of them would stay loyal. After the Balochistan experience when loyalties changed overnight, horse trading cannot be ruled out in the Senate elections.

Meanwhile, the latest crackdown by the National Accountability Bureau on senior provincial bureaucrats on graft charges has come as a serious blow to Shahbaz who boasted about good governance and claimed running a corruption-free administration. The action taken by NAB sends a clear signal that the noose is being tightened around those civil servants considered close to the CM and the PML(N).

Undoubtedly, the NAB crackdown has provided ammunition to the Opposition parties to target Shahbaz and the Punjab government. But one is not sure whether this clampdown would hurt the ruling PML(N) vote bank in the central Punjab that seems to have remained intact or may have even increased after the judicial actions against Sharif.

Although Shahbaz has finally been installed as party chief, the move is not likely to change the power structure within the PML(N) with Nawaz being declared as supreme leader. But things may change dramatically in the next few weeks with the possible conviction of the Sharif family.

By arrangement with Dawn