D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore
The PML-N has made three major decisions in a recent meeting held in London early this week. Referred as the “London Plan” in the media, it revolves around the following: Projecting Shahbaz Sharif as the PML-N Prime Ministerial candidate for the next elections (to be held in 2018), return of the Nawaz Sharif to face the legal cases in Pakistan, and requesting Maryam Nawaz to go slow in making any statements relating to leadership issues.
Obviously, the above measures, are aimed to address the immediate crisis within and around the PML-N. Will it work? If the measures are aimed at winning the next elections, will a change in leadership help the PML-N?
Shahbaz as the Prime Minister Candidate
The decision should have been taken a few weeks earlier, perhaps, immediately after the Court’s decision to disqualify Nawaz Sharif. In fact, the top leadership should have discussed even before the disqualification announcement and looked into options.
The above decision also shows the lack of an option for the PML-N. It is clear that the Establishment does not want Nawaz Sharif to continue. The “minus Nawaz” formula has been in the public debate for more than a year. However, Shabazz is acceptable.
Second, more than the Establishment, there were discussions within the party itself regarding a leadership change. In October 2017, there was an open demand from the party; leaders did make a public demand on Shahbaz Sharif being made the Party chief as well.
Third, there was also a fear of a PML-N forward block; or, the Deep Statement creating another PML faction.
Fourth, the PTI assault and Imran Khan’s aggressive politics. The results of NA-120 elections in Lahore, considered as a PML-N fort saw PTI’s candidate performing well; though the PTI lost the elections to Kulsoom Nawaz, it polled more votes than the previous election in 2013.
If the party has to stand united and win the next elections, it is imperative that it has a strong leader. More importantly, the party needs clarity at the second tier and at the grassroots level. Shahbaz Sharif provides all. More importantly, he is acceptable to the Deep State.
In terms of facing the next elections – the move to project Shahbaz Sharif will certainly help the PML-N. He has been the Chief Minister of the most important province in Pakistan; if the party succeeds with a good performance in Punjab, it should automatically catapult the PML-N into Islamabad. Of the total 272 elected seats for the National Assembly, 147 are from Punjab. A strong show in Punjab will also help the PML-N to nominate (based on proportional representation) to 70 reserved seats for the National Assembly.
If Shabazz cannot get the required seats for the PML-N in the next elections, no one else from the party can.
Nawaz returns to Pakistan and face the Courts
The second major decision, according to the London Plan is about Nawaz Sharif. He is already back in Pakistan to face the legal charges against him in the Courts. For the last few weeks, Nawaz was not responding to the summons and have been avoiding from appearing in the Courts.
The opposition, especially Imran Khan has been criticizing Nawaz Sharif for not being accountable and evading the legal process. Such a debate has started harming the case of PML-N by denting its political image.
The party would find it acceptable even if there is a negative verdict on Nawaz leading to his arrest. It seems the party is preparing for it. Even a negative verdict could be used as a PR exercise for the PML-N. It could project Nawaz Sharif as a martyr for democracy. The opposite – not facing the trial and moving away to the UK or Saudi Arabia would have harmed the party and its image.
The return and Nawaz facing the court will also provide another political card to the party in its campaign for the elections. A party that would stand up for accountability and strength of institutions. In the recent weeks, there has been an extra emphasis on “strengthening the institutions” debate. Whether it happens or not, Nawaz’s return and facing the trial would give another card for the PML-N media machinery.
Maryam Nawaz to go slow
It appears that the party would want Maryam Nawaz to go slow on the leadership issues. There was a general perception that Nawaz Sharif is pushing his daughter to be the PM candidate, and also to take over the party. This would mean “Nawaz” family, and not the “Sharif” family.
Maryam has also worked hard during the last two years, the results were visible in the NA-120 elections. Without Nawaz Sharif, Kulsoom Nawaz (the party candidate) and Shahbaz Sharif, Maryam led the campaign. She seems to be getting popular among the young generation.
However, the party seems to be not ready in handing over the baton. Not yet. Her interview to the New York Times projecting that the party wants her to lead was not well received. Even Maryam had to retrace and announce she was misquoted.
The party also does not want a leadership struggle between Maryam and her cousin – Hamza Shahbaz Sharif. There is an expectation, the latter would be projected as a Chief Minister candidate for the Punjab province.
Collusion Averted; what about the Turbulence?
For the PML-N, the London Plan is a necessity to avoid an immediate political mishap. But, what about the larger turbulence?
First, by indirectly implementing “PML minus Nawaz” idea, is the PML-N not yielding to the Establishment? If an established party like PML-N with strong roots in Punjab will have to play according to the Establishment rules, how about the other parties? And what about the larger democratic process?
Second, by choosing the other brother from the Sharif family, doesn’t the party projecting a wrong perception of family politics? Shabazz is a capable leader and is a better bet for the party, but there are others as well within the PML-N.
Third, more importantly, the Maryam-Hamza divide, which is in the open. There is enough political gossip in Punjab and Islamabad about the differences between the Generation Next in the PML-N. If Shahbaz taking over from Nawaz is seen as a family politics, Hamza-Maryam debate would highlight the dynastic politics in Pakistan. Imran Khan and the PTI would love to beat the PML-N on this point. In fact, PTI could take on the PPP and the ANP as well on this count.
Finally, the clash of institutions. Nawaz Sharif could not complete any of his earlier three terms as the Prime Minister. He was dismissed through a coup only once; the President dis-qualified him in 1993 and the judiciary in 2017. In 1993, there was a crisis between the Prime Minister and the President. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then the President (allegedly supported by the military) dismissed Nawaz Sharif. Though the judiciary intervened and reinstated Sharif, both Sharif and Ishaq Khan had to resign, thanks to the pressure from the military. In October 1999, the military intervened through a coup to overthrow Nawaz Sharif; he was subsequently jailed and exiled.
In 2017, the judiciary disqualified Sharif; many within Pakistan question the legal grounds and also the motivations (and the composition) of the Special Investigation Team that went after Nawaz Sharif. Clearly, there is a larger issue equation between the institutions, and the supremacy of one over the others