Shehbaz, the dealmaker; Nawaz, the deal breaker – which direction will PML-N take?

Published: March 2, 2018

For PML-N, their trump card is not Shehbaz, but Nawaz and Maryam. PHOTO: TWITTER/ MARYAMNSHARIF

Despite a faction in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) wanting an aggressive president like Kulsoom Nawaz at the helm of affairs, the nomination of Shehbaz Sharif did not come as a surprise to most critics and analysts. However, his nomination as president of the party has raised many questions regarding the road ahead for the PML-N as the country’s leading political party.

With an increasing prevalence of a compromising attitude with the “invisible forces”, Shehbaz’s candidature might as well lead to a possible normalisation of relations between the PML-N and the aforementioned invisible forces.

With Shehbaz in charge now, the most pertinent question is whether the narrative promoted by Nawaz Sharif will continue to prevail in the party. The route of politics taken by Nawaz and his party has never had a middle ground, making it almost impossible to come back from with a drastic change in policies. However, after his return from Saudi Arabia, Nawaz has been very careful while criticising the establishment. In fact, he has refrained from addressing them directly, only referring to them as the “invisible forces”. Nevertheless, his aggressive narrative is still not being endorsed by his younger brother, Shehbaz.

Knowing Shehbaz’s way of politics, one can easily predict that he will seek a deal yet again; however, this time the establishment seems to be in no mood to make one. The way Shehbaz is being targeted in Punjab, with the help of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), is a clear indication that the policy of ‘good cop, bad cop’ will no longer work for the Sharif brothers. Conversely, if Shehbaz somehow manages to reconcile with the establishment, it may benefit the PML-N in the near future and guarantee them a certain victory in the upcoming election, but will definitely not be good for them in the long run. It is unclear if the establishment will be willing to provide the Sharif brothers with a small window to return to the federal and provincial assemblies yet again through an electoral victory.

Given the way the PML-N provincial government in Balochistan is under crisis, it appears the establishment is not going to give the Sharif brothers an easy chance of return. To add to this, the arrest of Ahad Cheema, along with the police encounter of Abid Boxer, are signs suggesting it is also time for the younger Sharif brother to face the music. If both Nawaz and Shehbaz are not allowed to participate, then ultimately only Maryam Nawaz and Kulsoom will be left to head the party. Given that Maryam and Kulsoom are responsible for the PML-N’s anti-establishment narrative, and both have a very uncompromising and aggressive style of politics, the establishment will be in two minds when it comes to disqualifying Shehbaz as well.

The other challenge for Shehbaz will be to keep his party intact if Nawaz is convicted and either sent behind bars or exiled. Thus far Shehbaz has proven his administrative skills, as there are no doubts that he is a skilled administrator, but he has not yet had the opportunity to prove his mettle as the leader of a political party. His entire life, Shehbaz has engaged in politics under the shadow of his older brother, Nawaz, while the changing political and ground realities and youth participation in politics has limited the scope and style of Shehbaz’s politics. The narrative built by Nawaz has actually proven successful in not only securing the PML-N’s vote bank emotionally, but also attracting a large segment of the middle class youth in Pakistani society. Ditching this age-old narrative and making a deal with the establishment can therefore prove to be a fatal blow to the PML-N.

Thus, it would appear the ruling party has to walk a very tight rope up to the next election. Yes, they have a very clear chance of winning the election and rewriting the history of Pakistan, but to do so they have to take very calculated moves, not to mention sustain an enormous amount of pressure from the opposition and the judiciary as well. Therefore, will Shehbaz be able to hold his nerve during crunch time, which will only get worse from now?

For PML-N, their trump card is not Shehbaz and his narrative of development.  At best, he can be termed a wild card through which the PML-N can make a fair entry in the general election, but he alone is not going to win it for them. The trump card for the PML-N continues to be Nawaz and his daughter Maryam, and it will be their narrative winning them the election yet again. There is, of course, the chance that Maryam too will be barred from politics via a verdict against her through the accountability courts, but the back-up plan would then involve Kulsoom taking over charge of Nawaz’s narrative.

The main problem facing the ruling party is the group of party members who want to reconcile with the invisible forces and continue to engage in politics and remain in power. This group, mostly consisting of the members of the assembly, is of the view that if reconciliation will lead to a free and fair election for the PML-N, it is not too great a price to pay. This theory looks good on paper and is actually an easy and old way of maintaining the status quo, as one bows down to the invisible forces, accepts their hegemony over policies, and gets the ceremonial status of forming the government. The issue gets more complicated, as the forces responsible for orchestrating Nawaz’s ouster and launching Imran Khan will never compromise their position on the chess board, nor are they going to stop their efforts of eliminating the PML-N altogether. If there was any chance of reconciliation, Shehbaz would not have been under fire as well, nor would the PML-N suffer in the senate election. What this implies is that the month of March is going to ‘make or break’ PML-N’s chances at the next election.

For the ruling party, they need to decide whether or not they really want to take on the invisible forces and carry on the flag of an anti-establishment narrative, or whether they will opt for a reconciliation policy by trying to develop a pro-establishment agenda under their new president, Shehbaz. Whatever they decide should take history into account, a history dating back to the Musharraf era, when Nawaz was disqualified for life and sent into exile along with his younger brother; an era in which the PML-N survived only by not bowing down to the then dictator, Musharraf.

The PML-N survived the earlier crunch time by raising an anti-establishment narrative, carried by seasoned politicians like Javed Hashmi, Mushahid Ullah Khan, Khawaja Asif, Khawaja Saad Rafique and Tehmina Daultana. Some of their leaders spent a number of years in four by four prison cells, facing torture at the time, but in the end, it was the politics of resistance which not only saved the party from disappearing, but also paved the way for Nawaz to come back and win elections again.

The road ahead for the PML-N is not easy, but as the saying goes, the greater the risk, the sweeter the fruit. Only time will tell what the outcome is for the PML-N, but in order for respect and supremacy of the ballot to prevail, it seems the narrative of Nawaz and Maryam needs to emerge as victor, both within the ranks of the ruling PML-N party, and on the political chess board.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar

The writer is a columnist and writes for various English and Urdu publications. He tweets at @rjimad (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    The respect of the ballot is important …… but no one, without exception, can or should claim to be above the Law.Recommend

  • Manzoor Ahmed

    Such parties should be banned for life.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The authors prophecy is faulty, they took the risk and got the sweet fruit of power and wealth too, but the supremacy of the ballot could not and will not save them from loss of respect and power because of their criminal acts and will eventually land them in prison cells. No one stands above the law is the message for the criminals.

  • Sane

    Failed to understand as how this corrupt family is still enjoying all country resources and still looting Pakistan.Recommend