ISLAMABAD: The country’s main political parties on Sunday kicked off their campaigns to gain maximum support for their prime ministerial nominees with indications that the opposition may not be able to field a joint candidate in Tuesday’s election in the National Assembly for a new leader of the house.

The PML-N’s nominee for the office of the prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi collected his nomination papers from the National Assembly Secretariat whereas Awami Muslim League (AML) president Sheikh Rashid Ahmed received the forms as a nominee of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) — though the party has not yet officially declared his candidature.

Sources in the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) told Dawn that the party leadership had finalised the name of Opposition Leader Syed Khursheed Shah as its candidate. The decision was made at a meeting presided over by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari soon after his arrival in the capital earlier in the day.

NA to elect new leader of the house tomorrow

Mr Shah has already convened a meeting of the parliamentary leaders of all the opposition parties today (Monday) to discuss the strategy for the assembly session convened by President Mamnoon Hussain for the election of the new prime minister, after disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case.

Despite knowing that his party had a comfortable majority in the lower house of parliament, Mr Abbasi launched his campaign and met Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman at the latter’s official residence at the Ministers’ Enclave.

Talking to reporters after the meeting, Mr Abbasi during his first direct media interaction after his nomination as the next prime minister said that his party had implemented the SC’s verdict in letter and spirit despite having serious reservations over it. He said they had not accepted the court’s decision and the people of this country would also not accept it.

Mr Abbasi thanked the Maulana for extending his party’s support for him and said that he would go to all the allies to seek their votes.

When asked about the opposition’s claim that a reference was also pending in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against him on the LNG issue, the former petroleum minister said that he was not afraid of facing references. “Go and file 10 references. I do not fear from references,” he said, adding that he had already disclosed all his assets.

“Only those should level allegations who have the courage to face the consequences, if proven wrong,” he said.

In response to a question about Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, he said that keeping Iqamas (work permits) of foreign countries was not an illegal act. “As far as I have the knowledge about the legal matters, there is no harm in possessing an Iqama. It’s just like a visa,” he added.

Mr Abbasi avoided a comment on the critical question about the reportedly tense civil-military relationship.

When asked a direct question about the possible involvement of the military in the ouster of Mr Sharif, he said that he was a petroleum minister in the previous cabinet and such matters were the domain of the prime minister.

When asked if former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar would be part of his cabinet, he said that so far no decision about the future cabinet had been made. He said the nomination of his cabinet members would be made by the party leadership with consultations. He, however, said there were no differences among the party leaders and Chaudhry Nisar “has always been a part of the PML-N and he will remain with us”.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while extending his support to Mr Abbasi, said that his party was not supporting an individual, but the country.

The PML-N leaders in a parliamentary committee meeting presided over by ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Saturday had endorsed the leadership’s decision to nominate Mr Abbasi as the prime minister for the interim period to enable Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to contest the election of the National Assembly to assume the office of the country’s chief executive.

Earlier, Nawaz Sharif who had already shifted to the Punjab House soon after the announcement of the SC’s verdict visited the PM House for a brief period and formally vacated the official residence. Mr Sharif met the staff of the PM House and later left for Murree with members of his family.

Opposition strategy

Meanwhile, the efforts of some senior leaders of the PPP and the PTI to field a consensus candidate against the PML-N’s nominee almost fell flat when the PTI nominated Sheikh Rashid.

Sources in the PPP told Dawn that the party leadership was unhappy over the PTI’s decision to nominate Sheikh Rashid and that too without even waiting for the Monday’s meeting. The party leaders, they said, were not only angry over Imran Khan’s unilateral decision, but they were also unhappy over his choice of Mr Ahmed for the all-important election.

“It is highly unlikely that the PPP members will support Sheikh Rashid who in the past had used very objectionable and filthy language against late prime minister Benazir Bhutto,” said a senior PPP office-bearer while reminding the period of 1980s and 1990s when Mr Ahmed was in the PML-N as the arch rival of the party.

The PPP leader, while requesting anonymity, regretted that it would be unfortunate if the opposition parties failed to come closer after the historic Supreme Court’s verdict. He said if the opposition failed to field a joint candidate then the political analysts would comment that the result of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Panama case was that the government allies had come closer and the gulf among the opposition parties had increased. And this situation, he said, could be interpreted in different ways and it could be seen as a question mark on the legitimacy of the apex court’s verdict. He said the PPP would put this argument before the opposition parties in the meeting.

When contacted, PPP Secretary General and spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar said Bilawal had arrived in the capital and was busy in consultations with the senior leadership.

Mr Babar expressed the hope that the opposition parties would be able to arrive at a “consensus decision”.

“The opposition parties are not merely the PPP and the PTI, there are also other parties like the QWP, JI, MQM, ANP and JI,” he added. He said this consensus was very important after the Panama case verdict.

When his reaction was sought on the nomination of Sheikh Rashid by the PTI, Mr Babar said it would be “premature” for him to make a comment since the party had not so far been informed about it through official channel.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2017