Misfortune never comes alone. After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N is now facing what some analysts have described as an existential crisis. There are tell-tale signs of disaffection in the party, and there is a strong lobby of party men who want Shahbaz Sharif to replace Nawaz Sharif as the chief of the PML-N.
Media reports say that the PML-N is now virtually divided between two groups – one led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the other by Sharif’s younger brother and incumbent Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The differences between the two are said to be too serious and hard to reconcile.
Since Nawaz’s departure from the Prime Minister House, following the Supreme Court verdict in the Panamagate case on July 28, a thinking has developed within the party ranks that the leadership role should be assigned to Shahbaz Sharif. There has also been talk of changing the nomenclature of the party from Nawaz League to Shahbaz League – the way Junejo League transformed into the Nawaz League and the Nawaz League into Q-League.
While Nawaz Sharif has become a liability for the PML-N, especially owing to his confrontationist attitude towards the judiciary and the army, Shahbaz sharif has emerged as a voice of reason and moderation. Moreover, Shahbaz Sharif in his nine years of chief ministership has created a strong following in the party. According to some informed sources, Shahbaz Sharif accommodated many powerful lobbies in the provincial government and acquired the role of a father-figure. This role is in sharp contrast to the regal style of Nawaz Sharif who always kept party members and the general public at bay and preferred to surround himself with a handful of cronies, especially those close to Maryam Safdar.
Nawaz Sharif has been committing one blunder after another. In the course of the Panama case hearing, he openly challenged the authority of the Supreme Court and ignored the voice of saner elements in the party. He sidelined time-tested aides like Ch. Nisar Ali Khan and Mehtab Abbasi and relied on Maryam Nawaz and her cohort of hangers-on. The former prime minister repeatedly ignored his younger brother’s advice and went on a collision course with state institutions even before being disqualified in the Panamagate case.
After Nawaz’s disqualification, Shahbaz Sharif was the obvious choice for premiership and party leadership, but the former prime minister heeded the advice of his daughter Maryam and wife Kulsoom Nawaz against elevating Shahbaz Sharif. Not only this. Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza was also sidelined from the party affairs and replaced with Maryam to run Kulsoom’s election campaign for NA-120 by-poll. That further deepened the split within the party and the family.
The possibility of Nawaz Sharif being convicted is strong. If Nawaz is convicted by the accountability court, and he backs Shahbaz as his successor, then transition would be easy. Otherwise, there will be confusion and disarray in the party. Some old party loyalists have already come out openly to have Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as PML-N leader. Riaz Hussain Pirzada, a federal minister known for his frank outbursts, recently declared that it was time for the younger Sharif to replace former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as PML-N chief.
This demand was later endorsed by a Punjab government spokesman who commented that it was pragmatic to do so. Meanwhile, reports have been circulating in the press about a meeting of 40 PML-N MPAs from various parts of the province in Lahore to discuss the possibility of replacing Nawaz Sharif with his younger brother as the party head. Similar statements have also emanated from people said to belong to what is known as “the Shahbaz camp” within the PML-N. These statements include those made by Hamza Shahbaz, an influential MNA in his own right.
The dilemma facing the PML-N now is how to survive the challenge to the party posed by the array of corruption cases facing Nawaz Sharif and his family. The Shahbaz Sharif branch of the family and a large number of Muslim League members have been advocating a moderate approach, while Maryam Nawaz has taken an aggressive stance along with her father. It is generally believed that a more measured, less acrimonious thrust on the part of the PML-N would ensure the survival of the party as a political entity. This will necessarily involve the passing of the leadership mantle to Shahbaz Sharif. But so far, there is no nod for this from Nawaz Sharif.
In the view of some analysts, if there is an inordinate delay in the transition, the party risks losing members to opposing forces and a split will come sooner rather than later. It is believed that at the moment Shahbaz Sharif is willing to become prime minister and PML-N chief with Nawaz’s support. But a stage would soon be reached where he will have no option but to defy Nawaz Sharif.
A section of the media has repeatedly talked of “hidden hands” active behind the scenes to create internal division in the PML-N, but long time observers of the national political scene are of the opinion that if anybody is to blame for the current situation, it is Nawaz Sharif himself. In this connection, it is relevant to note here that PML-N Chairman Raja Zafarul Haq has termed the reports of any rift in the party as wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that the challenge to the PML-N is the severest in its 30-year history.
No doubt, the party survived eight long and hard years of Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, but the recent turn of events poses a real threat to it. In the past, the PML-N faced external threats, but this time around the threat is from within the family. The threat is from the war of succession among members of the second generation of Sharifs. And, as always, the struggle for power is a no holds barred game. The coming months will show who wins – Maryam Nawaz or Hamza Sharif.