ISLAMABAD: With the departure of President Asif Ali Zardari now just a matter of time, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have to choose the man (or woman) who will now occupy the presidency.
With its comfortable win in the May elections, the PML-N enjoys the numbers to unilaterally choose the next president — without any allies or outside support.
However, it is still not clear who will be Mr Sharif’s choice even though the election is slated to be held in less than three weeks from now, on Aug 6.
The prime minister and his party have not said much about the issue. Hence, the names that are doing the rounds are far from confirmed.
However, some assumptions can be made to narrow down the possible choices confronting the prime minister.
To begin with, analysts are of the view that the generous allocation of cabinet slots to PML-N favourites from Lahore as well as other parts of Punjab, the post of the president will go to someone from a smaller province.
Having given the speakership of the National Assembly to a Punjabi lawmaker from Lahore and Sharif’s decision to keep the premiership with himself, it is only politically feasible that the president’s slot be filled by a non-Punjabi.
However, regardless of the ethnic background, chances are that the individual will be a party loyalist.
After all, so far all of Nawaz Sharif’s choices have shared one trait – loyalty to the party and its leader. The cabinet choices are a case in point.
Pairing together these two conditions, various names are doing the rounds, though the final decision will be made by Mr Sharif himself, with perhaps some input from his brother Mian Shahbaz Sharif.
One of the prominent hopefuls is Sartaj Aziz, a resident of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who at present is serving as adviser to the prime minister on national security and foreign affairs.
Not only does he fulfil the condition of providing representation to a smaller province, he is also trusted by the Sharifs. During their last stint in power, he served as finance minister as well as foreign minister.
He was even asked about his chances during a press conference on Wednesday.
He said the decision lay with the party, but it was clear that he was not averse to the idea.
However, his elevation to the presidency will create problems for the party as the PML-N will lose its most qualified member for the foreign affairs slot.
Since the PML-N took over the charge, Sartaj Aziz has had his hands full with the foreign affairs portfolio.
The name of Zafar Iqbal Jhagra, general secretary of the PML-N, who also hails from KP, is also being mentioned. However, not many are willing to consider him a serious contender.
NAMES FROM SINDH: Interestingly, several names from Sindh are doing the rounds — Mamnoon Hussain, who was Sindh governor from June 1999 to October 1999 when the PML-N was in power is in the race; names of veteran Muslim Leaguer and former Sindh chief minister Ghous Ali Shah and Mumtaz Bhutto, who joined the PML-N just before the general elections, are also being mentioned.
After the departure of President Zardari, no Sindhi will be in any constitutional position at the federal level —Speaker and Deputy Speaker of National Assembly, Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Senate, prime minister and Chief Justice. This is why some observers point out that PML-N may be interested in choosing someone from Sindh for the presidency.
As it is, the PPP has already accused the PML-N of ignoring the province.
But even if Sharif does choose someone from Sindh, Mumtaz Bhutto’s chances are not seen as very high. However, though the choice of president will be made by Mr Sharif after lengthy deliberations, it is also one that need not have many political ramifications as it did in the past.
After passage of the 18th amendment, the president’s position is simply a ceremonial one.
If the presidency was the centre of attention and of decision-making during the past five years, it was due to Zardari’s position as co-chairman of the PPP.
Although he had generously encouraged transfer of power to parliament, Mr Zardari still held all the strings of power from 2008 to 2013. But now that Nawaz Sharif is prime minister, his office will be where all the political action is going to be since he heads his party as well.
No wonder then that till Mr Sharif himself takes a decision, there will be no clarity about the next president.
More than one PML-N leader confirmed that most names doing the rounds were the result of overactive imagination. One of them said: “Mian Nawaz Sharif may have decided who will be the next president, but nobody in the party has any clue about the face which will grace the presidency over the next five years.”