What Makes Shahbaz Sharif the Second Most Powerful Person in Pak
Nawaz Sharif chose his younger brother, and Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif as his successor on 29 July.
Nawaz Sharif chose his younger brother, and Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif as his successor on 29 July.(Photo: The Quint)

What Makes Shahbaz Sharif the Second Most Powerful Person in Pak

Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from Parliament by a bench of five Supreme Court Judges for failing to disclose that he received a salary of 10,000 Dirhams from Dubai-based company company Capital FZE. The former Pakistani Prime Minister was disqualified for not being honest, a key requirement for being a member of Parliament – under Article 62 (1) (f) of the Constitution.

Sharif chose his younger brother, and Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif as his successor on 29 July. Sharif would have had to resign from the chief ministership of Punjab, and get elected to the National Assembly. Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had been appointed as interim prime minister, for a period of 45 days. Abbasi, as expected, won hands down in a vote in Parliament on 1 August, and secured 221 votes in the 342-member National Assembly.

Abbasi, a Sharif loyalist was quick to state, “Sharif has been sent home, but he is still people’s premier.”

Ultimately, Shahbaz decided to stay on as CM of Punjab till the next general elections to be held in 2018, due to a number of reasons. Firstly, a number of members of PML-N including the Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah wanted Shahbaz to stay in Punjab given his administrative caliber, and the fact that a number of key mega projects were near completion and needed supervision.

Second, Shahbaz’s choice for successor, his son Hamza Shahbaz, was not acceptable to certain sections of the PML-N and finally, many PML-N leaders advised Shahbaz against fighting the by-election from NA120, since the PTI candidate would give a tough fight. In 2013 elections, the PTI candidate had given a tough fight to Nawaz Sharif.

Shahbaz's Importance Has Only Increased

While Abbasi may be PM, three time CM Shahbaz’s role will only become more important in the run up to the elections. Both the Sharif brothers share a very close rapport, and though there have been reports of rivalry between their children Hamza Shahbaz (Shahbaz Sharif’s son) and Maryam Nawaz, the relationship between Nawaz and Shahbaz has remained intact.

Shahbaz, who shares a better relationship with the army than Nawaz, has been offered the Prime Ministership of Pakistan on more than one occasion, but he has remained steadfast in his commitment to his brother and refused. According to an article in the Indian Express, there have been three clear occasions when the three time Chief Minister of Punjab was offered Prime Ministership.

In 1992, when he was a Member of the National Assembly, then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan reached out to Shahbaz, after he developed differences with Nawaz Sharif. Similarly in 1999, a few days before a military coup, then Chief of Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, told Shahbaz that he would be acceptable to the army as Prime Minister, according to the article.

Finally in 2016, when Nawaz Sharif developed problems with the army, Shahbaz intervened and was yet again offered the Prime Ministership by the army.

What also makes Shahbaz’s role within the party important is his popularity in the crucial province of Punjab as a consequence of his stellar track record as Chief Minister of Punjab, and his ability to deliver which has been recognized not only within Pakistan, but also outside. Sharif being the second most powerful man in Pakistan, is no lightweight when it comes to foreign policy.

Strong Ties With the Chinese Communist Party

Sharif also has a good rapport with the Chinese Communist party, and with his province being one of the main stakeholders in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC Project), he has got the opportunity to interact with them closely. It would be pertinent to point out that post the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, the Chinese were quick to clarify that Nawaz Sharif's exit from the Prime Minister’s post will have no bearing on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said:

"We believe that the China-Pakistan strategic cooperative partnership will not be affected by the change of the situation inside Pakistan,"

In July 2016, Shahbaz Sharif had visited China to discuss the progress of the CPEC project and met with senior functionaries of the Communist Party. Sharif expressed admiration for the Chinese Communist Party, and its contribution towards China’s rapid economic progress.

Sharif said:

Leaders of CPC have proved from their act and character that if work is carried out with commitment, enthusiasm, and continuity then no hurdle can stop development process.

On their part, the Chinese have expressed admiration for Shahbaz’s administrative acumen and ability to deliver fast

During his visit to China in July 2016, he was showered with praises for the quick progress being made on the CPEC Project. According to a report in The News, “Exim Bank chairperson, Hu Xiaolian, said earlier in China they used the term ‘Shenzhen speed’ as a symbol of development and progress, but instead ‘Punjab speed’ was currently in use in China for the rapid execution of projects.”

In November 2016, a Chinese delegation including Hao Tian Holdings Ltd, China Innovative Finance Group, Chendong International and Technical Corporation visited Pakistan and praised Shahbaz Sharif for undertaking developmental projects with great efficiency, dubbing the speed at which developmental works were being carried out as ‘Punjab Speed’.

As a result of this, the team committed a US $3 billion fund for areas like infrastructure, transport, etc. Shahbaz Sharif, on his part, thanked the Chinese not just for the CPEC Project, but also the metro train project in Lahore, saying that it was a present from China to Pakistan, and a symbol of the close relationship between both countries.

In May 2017, Shahbaz Sharif was part of the Pakistani delegation, which attended the OBOR Summit in China in May 2017, where he delivered an extempore speech praising the Chinese leadership’s vision and said, “We, in Pakistan, consider President Xi’s initiative not only bold and futuristic, but also epic and historic.”

File photo of Pakistan’s deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) addressing a news conference with his brother Shahbaz Sharif in Lahore, Pakistan.
File photo of Pakistan’s deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) addressing a news conference with his brother Shahbaz Sharif in Lahore, Pakistan.
(Photo: AP)

Close to Turkey and India

Sharif also has good relations with the Turkish business community as well as the political leadership. In recent years, Turkish involvement in the province of Punjab has witnessed a rise. It has invested in the Metro Bus Project in Lahore as well as waste management in Punjab. The Sharifs have cultivated strong ties with the Turkish President, and firmly backed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the military. Shahbaz has visited Turkey on a number of occasions.

In May 2016, along with Nawaz Sharif and other members of the family, Shahbaz attended Erdogan’s daughter’s marriage. In August 2016, he visited Turkey and during his meeting with the Turkish President, praised him for foiling the coup attempt in July 2016. Sharif again visited Turkey in December 2016.

During his visit to Pakistan in November 2016, Erdogan had thanked Shahbaz Sharif for the hospitality extended to him. Erdogan said, “I express my gratitude to the Chief Minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif for showing great hospitality and kindness during our visit to Lahore.”

It is not just China and Turkey, but also India to which Shahbaz reached out as Punjab CM. His vision for good ties with India is in total convergence with that of his brother. During his tenure as CM of Punjab he has sought to strengthen economic and people-to-people linkages with Pakistani Punjab.

He has visited India twice, once in 2012 for the inauguration of the Integrated Check Post at Attari, which was set up with the intention of giving a boost to bilateral trade through the Wagah-Attari land crossing. During his second visit in December 2013 he met with the then PM, Dr Manmohan Singh, extending an invitation to Dr Singh to visit Pakistan on the then PM Nawaz Sharif’s behalf.

Sharif also visited his ancestral village, Jatti Umra, where he received a warm welcome. Sharif, during his visit to India, spoke in favour of the two Punjabs acting as a bridge between both countries. A joint statement brought out by Sharif and then Chief Minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, laying emphasis on the benefits which would accrue to both Punjabs from, ‘peace,harmony and economic growth’.

Earlier in November 2012, Sharif had welcomed the then Deputy Chief Minister of Indian Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, and both sides had discussed ways to enhance people-to-people ties as well as closer economic linkages.

In conclusion, while PML-N government under Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is not likely to ruffle too many feathers till the election of 2018, Shahbaz Sharif is an old hand who enjoys the confidence of his brother. Projecting him as the PML-N’s face will bolster the party’s prospects not just in Punjab, but pan-Pakistan. Along with Nawaz Sharif’s charisma, and Shahbaz’s administrative experience, political astuteness and strong links with the outside world, PML-N is in a good shape to get re-elected in 2018.

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

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