Pakistan Polls: Will Army’s Sway, Internal Rivalries Weaken PML-N?
PML-N Chief Shehbaz Sharif’s picture used for representational purposes.
PML-N Chief Shehbaz Sharif’s picture used for representational purposes.(Photo: The Quint)

Pakistan Polls: Will Army’s Sway, Internal Rivalries Weaken PML-N?

As in other parts of South Asia, dynastic politics is an integral feature of Pakistan’s politics; both PPP and PML-N are essentially family-run political parties. While the PPP has been dominated by the Bhuttos, the PML-N has been dominated by the Sharif family.

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Protests Against PML-N’s Dynastic Politics

In the recent past, there has been resentment against both the rise of Maryam Nawaz Sharif (daughter of former PM Nawaz Sharif’s) as well as Hamza Shahbaz, son of Shehbaz Sharif (PML-N party chief and younger brother of Nawaz Sharif).

The latest resignation from PML-N was that of Zaeem Qadri, once a confidante of Shehbaz Sharif, who was denied a seat for the NA-133.

Qadri used some harsh words for Hamza Shahbaz saying, “Hear Hamza Shahbaz! Lahore is neither your, nor your father's property”.

Qadri also stated, that one of the reasons he did not get the ticket was that he did not possess adequate resources. In the run up to the elections, the internal dynamics of the PML-N, as well as the role of the Pakistan military will be crucial (it has been lending tacit support to the opposition, to weaken the PML-N especially in the party’s citadel of Punjab).

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Dynastic Politics & Sharif Family’s Internal Tussle

If one were to look at the resentment against Maryam Nawaz, only last year, former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar – who does not share particularly cordial relations with the Sharifs – said that it is too premature to compare Maryam Nawaz with Benazir Bhutto. Nisar said in an interview to Geo TV: “Comparing Maryam Nawaz to Benazir Bhutto is wrong... Maryam Nawaz should understand and partake in practical politics. Only then can she be considered a leader”.

Another minister, Saad Rafique too had stated that Maryam Nawaz should be “cautious while addressing public meetings”.

It has been argued, that one of the main reasons for the strained relationship between Shehbaz and Nawaz, was the rivalry between their children. After his removal from Prime Ministership in July 2017, one of the reasons why Shehbaz Sharif (now the PM candidate) was not immediately appointed interim Prime Minister, as well as President of the PML-N (in August 2017 itself), was that there was a clamour for Hamza Shahbaz as Chief Minister of Punjab and Nawaz’s family was not comfortable with this arrangement where both father and son would be powerful.

Later on, Nawaz Sharif appointed Pervez Malik, instead of Hamza Shehbaz as campaign-in-charge for NA 120 which was fought by his wife Kulsoom Nawaz.

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Army’s Defections & Maneuvers

In recent months, the Pakistan Army has been trying to engineer a number of defections from the PML-N to PTI, and even though the military shares a comfortable relationship with Shehbaz, as compared to Nawaz, it is believed that now they would be most comfortable with Imran Khan as PM. There have been reports, of the military not just arm twisting political leaders of the PML-N, but also censorship of the media. Whether the latest resignation was prompted by the military is in the realm of speculation of course.

Interestingly, Qadri’s resignation may be welcomed not just by the military, since it would have come across as a setback to the PML-N, which is considered the dominant force in Punjab.

In his heart of hearts, Shehbaz’ brother Nawaz too may not mind this, since it will not only clip Hamza’s wings but also weaken Shehbaz’s position to some extent. During his press conference, Qadri mentioned Nawaz Sharif, saying that the Former PM had told Qadri, that many within the PML-N were not happy with his presence in the party.

While the two brothers, Nawaz and Shehbaz, share a very strong rapport, inspite of temperamental differences, in the past year, there has been a degree of friction. After Nawaz Sharif’s remarks on the Mumbai attacks, where he blamed Pakistan for delaying the trial of the accused in the Mumbai attacks, Shehbaz had to intervene, and apparently told Nawaz not to talk to the press without his prior consultation.

The Way Forward

In an interview to the Dawn newspaper, Nawaz had said, “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors; should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me... Why can’t we complete the trial?”

In spite of the differences within the PML-N, and some tensions between both brothers, there is a strong realisation, that the main crowd puller for the PML-N still remains Nawaz Sharif, and with the elder Sharif being in London due to his wife Kulsoom Nawaz’s ill health (she has been on ventilator since 14 June 2018), it is unlikely that he will be able to spearhead the campaign.

On the whole, defections like Qadri’s are not likely to have much of an impact on the prospects of the PML-N, given Nawaz’s charisma and goodwill along with the fact that he is looked at as an individual who has taken on the Army head on, and Shehbaz Sharif’s performance as chief minister.

What will really be crucial, is the success of the Pakistan military’s backdoor machinations, and to what extent it will go all out to back PTI Chief Imran Khan, who himself has been in the eye of a storm, after a book written by his former wife Reham Khan made some serious accusations against him.

It is in Pakistan’s interest that the 2019 election verdict results in the strengthening of the democratic set up. Apart from a dire need for change in the military’s mindset, political parties in Pakistan, too need to get their house in order and move beyond family concerns. It is also important to have greater intra-party democracy.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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