Pakistan Reader# 80, 11 March 2018
The PML-N is likely to gather strength under Shahbaz Sharif and face the forthcoming elections from a position of strength, despite the loss of Nawaz. Shahbaz has been the face of the PML-N in Punjab and the Chief Minister of the province, where the party has more presence than rest of Pakistan.D. Suba Chandran
An edited version of this analysis was first published in the Hindu. See D. Suba Chandran, "In Pakistan, it’s advantage Sharifs", 9 March 2018.
Finally, Shahbaz Sharif has been appointed as the PML-N. This is a landmark development within the PML-N and is likely to catapult the party into the next election.
Nawaz Sharif should have done this last year itself, when he was disqualified by the Supreme Court. Perhaps, he didn’t expect that the Supreme Court will go after him, and find ways to remove him from being the President of his faction of the PML as well. Though it is a different question whether there is enough merit in the judicial verdict, the issue here now is what will happen to the PML-N next.
First, the party is likely to gather strength under Shahbaz Sharif and face the forthcoming elections from a position of strength, despite the loss of Nawaz. Shahbaz has been the face of the PML-N in Punjab and the Chief Minister of the province, where the party has more presence than rest of Pakistan. For the PML-N Pakistan is Punjab writ large; hence, Shahbaz is unlikely to face any challenges in running the party. He has the experience and is acceptable by rest of the PML-N leadership from Punjab.
Second, by nominating Shahbaz and not Maryam Nawaz, the party has taken a positive step. First, Shahbaz is more acceptable than Maryam; though the latter has worked hard in the recent years and is young, the former is more matured and acceptable to rest of the party, and also the people of Punjab. As a Prime Minister candidate, Shahbaz brings a huge administrative experience as the Chief Minister of the largest province, and hence will be acceptable rest of the country as well. At the national level, Shahbaz will be able to carry the party forward better than Maryam.
Besides his experience, Shahbaz also has an added advantage over Maryam. The ongoing cases in the judiciary are not only about Nawaz, but also include Maryam. Any negative judicial verdict against Maryam in the near future will further impact the party’s likely performance in the forthcoming elections.
A larger advantage of Shabaz becoming the party leader vis-a-vis Maryam also relates to his acceptability, especially by the Deep State. Shahbaz was even preferred over Nawaz by the Deep State during the last decade, and this has been one of the open secrets within Pakistan.
Also, unlike Maryam, Shahbaz did not engage in a media war vis-a-vis the judiciary. He remained behind the scenes, silently working for the party.
Third, and most importantly, appointment of Shahbaz as the party President is likely to rally the people of Punjab behind the PML-N. Whatever may be the performance of the party in rest of the other provinces, under Shahbaz’s chief ministership, the PML-N has rallied the province ahead. With clarity in leadership, the Punjabis are less likely to look for an alternative outside the PML-N.
So, a clear projection and road map for the party now under Shahbaz, is likely to rally the entire province of Punjab behind the PML-N. This is also important, given the ascendancy of the extreme right led by the supporters of the JuD and Mumtaz Qadri. Their electoral performance in the recent bye elections, where they have polled more than the PPP and the ANP in Punjab and KP respectively is an ominous sign. A strong PML-N could negate that from becoming a new trend, especially in Punjab.
The above means, PML-N sweeping the elections in Punjab, perhaps returning with a larger proportion of votes than the previous election.
Given the electoral arithmetic, demography and the distribution of seats in Pakistan, if the PML-N succeeds in sweeping Punjab province, in all likelihood, the party will be able to come back to power at the federal level as well – with or without a coalition. Of the 342 seats for the National Assembly of Pakistan (with direct elections for 272 NA constituencies), a party will need 172 seats to form the government. In 2013 elections, PML-N could secure 189 including the reserved seats. The previous elections also had 183 seats from Punjab alone, including 35 reserved seats for women. Though the latest census has resulted in a decline in Punjab’s ratio, the province has lost only seven seats.
Given the level of opposition and the lack of possibility of a coalition amongst them, return of the PML-N is more a reality. Neither the PPP is likely to align with the PTI at the national level, nor the PTI with the MQM in Sindh.
If the Sharifs are able to retain Punjab, then the PML-N should succeed at the national level. The recent success stories for the PML-N in the bye elections in Lahore and Lodhran indicates towards that.
Unless the Deep State decides to strike and run away with the election results with a bizarre political re-engineering. Given Imran Khan’s single objective – to become the Prime Minister by any means, and the cards available with the Deep State ranging from Tahirul Qadri, MQM and Pervez Musharraf, an attempt could be made. But, it is less likely to succeed if the elections remain free and fair. A big if indeed.
However, there have been enough indications within Pakistan, that Shahbaz Sharif is acceptable to the Deep State. So one could expect the Deep State playing it safe, especially in Punjab; it may continue its political re-engineering in Karachi and perhaps in Quetta. But, for the PML-N, both Karachi and Quetta are far, and should be able to let the boys have their own game.
For the Deep State, there are serious global developments as the recent FATF discussions in Paris would reveal. Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the US are at a critical juncture. So, the Deep State would rather let the PML-N proceed as PML-S.
Another wild card – is a split within the PML-N. There was an expectation that the former minister for interior – Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan will lead a revolt within the party, and the PML will get a new faction. Both the Sharif brothers have succeeded in preventing such a split and also in isolating Chaudhry Nisar. He was not even invited for the latest meeting, where the decision was taken to make Shahbaz as the party leader and Nawaz as the Quaid.
It looks like, there is not going to be another faction of the PML, perhaps led by Musharraf!
Nawaz Sharif is likely to play the victim card, and gain more sympathy for the PML-N. It appears, Nawaz is all set for the same. For the time being, he has stepped back and allowed the party to take forward. So, it is minus Nawaz, but advantage PML-N. Perhaps, the judiciary has done a big favour to the PML-N by being harsh on Nawaz Sharif.
The author is a Professor and a Dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bangalore. He maintains a portal on Pakistan – www.pakistanreader.org.