Shahbaz Sharif’s challenges
Given the PML-N’s current travails, amongst which mention cannot be avoided of their leader Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and ousting from the posts of prime minister and party head, coupled with the debacle of the loss of the Balochistan government and the election for the top slots of the Senate, the meeting of the party’s General Council and the unopposed election of Shahbaz Sharif as the party president provides some solace. In a charged atmosphere, the party members roared their approval of what Nawaz Sharif and the new party president Shahbaz Sharif had to say. While the former pulled no punches in castigating the ‘conspiracies’ against him, in which the ‘bowing down’ before the altar of power of the ‘remote controlled toys’, i.e. unlikely ‘allies’ PPP and PTI, took pride of place, the latter read from a written speech that was much more moderate and restrained. This was the first major gathering of the PML-N after the shock of what transpired in the election of the Senate Chairman and Deputy Chairman. However, in a change from the defiant narrative of Nawaz Sharif since his ouster, the critique of the judiciary was conspicuous by its absence. As was the seemingly estranged ‘dissident’ former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar. Nawaz Sharif attempted to put a brave face on the Senate debacle by characterising his rivals’ victory as actually a loss and the loss of the PML-N as a victory. Whether that is true only time will tell. However, there is no denying the fact that the unanimous election of Shahbaz Sharif as party president has meant the party under attack has closed ranks, scotched any speculation of cracks in its defences and thereby avoided the history of Muslim Leagues wilting and fracturing under pressure. Nawaz Sharif himself benefited from such a ‘revolt’ against then leader Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1988 when the latter fell out of favour with military dictator General Zia. And was himself subjected to something similar in the shape of Musharraf’s King’s Party in the shape of the PML-Q, overwhelmingly drawn from the splintering ranks of the PML-N. To that extent, the PML-N has demonstrated its resilience in the face of adversity, Nawaz Sharif providing the momentum and lending force to this trend with his defiance of the powers-that-be. He has now declared that his slogan for the coming general elections is ‘respect the vote’, which will help turn the elections into a referendum on how he has been treated.
While the PML-N can pat itself on the back for weathering so far the storm that threatened shipwreck, there is little doubt that the new president faces considerable challenges. Shahbaz Sharif has the reputation of being a pragmatist, which in the obtaining situation would suggest a different approach to his elder brother’s defiant tone and stance. The critical question then is whether it will be Nawaz Sharif or Shahbaz Sharif who will be calling the shots. If Shahbaz’s acceptance speech after being elected party president is any guide, he pulled out all the stops in praising Nawaz, going so far as to say that as a leader of the party Nawaz is irreplaceable. But this whole debate about the strategy the party will adopt under Shahbaz Sharif may be trumped by developments in the NAB cases against the Sharifs, which threaten to knock out not only Nawaz Sharif and his emerging heir-apparent Maryam, but also Shahbaz Sharif. It would seem politic therefore for the party to have a fallback position if such an eventuality overtakes it. Coming to the office of party president just four months away from the general elections, Shahbaz Sharif has his work cut out in holding the party together (something that it seems is only possible through recognizing that the party’s power centre remains Nawaz Sharif), balancing his pragmatic instincts with the defiant stance of Nawaz Sharif, and leading the PML-N into the general elections to win. An unenviable raft of tasks indeed.