NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 12

Sharifs in search of a last deal?

The government and the opposition, especially the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), are involved in a propaganda war to serve their own purpose. After the former ruling party created an impression of the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a result of a “deal” with the establishment, which the military spokesman rubbished, ministers claim the Sharifs seek a last favour to leave the country. The situation is ambiguous now but it will become clear in the coming months when corruption and money laundering cases against the former ruling family of Pakistan reach the final stage.

Apparently, the role of the Sharifs in Pakistan politics has ended, though their party is still the most popular party in its stronghold, Punjab. The party is also visibly divided into two groups, one led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, and the other by former Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Maryam Nawaz’s faction openly criticises national institutions, while Shehbaz Sharif’s group publicly favours them. However, the main aim of both groups is to seek favours for themselves.

The country is once again in the grip of rumours of a possible deal between the Sharifs and the establishment. Analysts close to the family claim an understanding has been reached to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan and bring back Nawaz Sharif. According to analysts linked to the PML-N, the establishment is not happy with Prime Minister Imran over the “bad” economy, slow progress on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), relations with the US and a recent rift over the appointment of the ISI chief. Some of them also claimed that Prime Minister Imran Khan was planning to flee the country. Others said he would be jailed for “corruption.” All the rumours aimed to create political instability in the country and rifts between the government and national institutions.

On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that the economy is not as bad as it was in the PML-N tenure, when the country’s current account deficit had reached a record $20b in 2018. The PTI government also cannot be blamed for “slow” progress on the CPEC. It could have been slowed down, if it was, by other factors, such as COVID-19. Strained relations with the US are also not because of the policies of Prime Minister Imran Khan. It is a fact that mistrust has existed between the two countries for decades. Prime Minister Imran Khan can only be blamed for delaying the notification of the appointment of the new ISI head.

So far, the Sharifs have failed to gain substantial relief, though cases against them continue in courts. They continue to create rumours to keep themselves relevant to politics and keep the spirits of their workers high. They have largely succeeded in their plan. Recently, former National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq claimed that Nawaz Sharif would return to Pakistan in January and become the Prime Minister of Pakistan for the fourth time. It was really a far-fetched idea. Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified for life and he also has to serve a 10-year term in jail.

As the rumours of Nawaz Sharif’s return intensified, Special Assistant to Prime Minister Shahbaz Gill claimed PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif was seeking a deal for four people. “This is the last plea that Shehbaz has made — a relaxation for four people, and the promise that even Maryam Nawaz won’t engage in politics. Shehbaz wants he, Hamza Shehbaz and Maryam Nawaz be allowed to go to London to live with Nawaz Sharif. The cases against them should be dropped and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi would take over the leadership of the party here,” he claimed.

Meanwhile, Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry also claimed that there was a “race” among four leading members of the PML-N to replace Nawaz Sharif. “When the four big leaders went to meet “someone”, they said “Nawaz Sharif had inflicted huge losses on the country, but why don’t you consider us?” Earlier, Minister for Interior Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said that all four members of the Sharif family had been “subtracted” from Pakistan politics. “They want the hand of mercy that was placed on the head of Prime Minister Imran Khan be placed on their heads. The hand may well end up on their necks, but never their heads.” However, spokespersons for the Sharifs and their party have rubbished the claims.

It is clear that space for the Sharifs in national politics is shrinking. After ouster from power, they have consistently targeted national institutions to put them under pressure and get some relief. However, their strategy has not worked fully, though their party is still strong in Punjab. It won almost all by-elections in its stronghold and is expected to defeat the PTI in upcoming local government elections. The party can perform even better if the Sharifs leave it to others.

It is a common perception that the PML-N had become a mafia and weakened all institutions for personal benefits of the Sharifs. A judge of the Supreme Court also cited the “Sicilian Mafia” in the disqualification case against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. However, people miss the PML-N government after bad governance and high inflation in the PTI government. High prices and shortages of food and commodities have badly tarnished the image of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party. His slogans of action against the corrupt and their accountability have also lost steam. He will have to check prices and improve governance significantly to win the next election.