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Nawaz or Shahbaz?

Updated October 21, 2017

The campaign to have Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as PML-N leader has picked up.

On Thursday, Riaz Hussain Pirzada, a federal minister known for his occasional outbursts of unfiltered ‘truth’, declared how absolutely necessary it was for the younger Sharif to replace former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the top of the PML-N hierarchy.

Soon, in reaction to Mr Pirzada’s presser, a Punjab government spokesman commented on how pragmatism was the order of the day for the party. In other words, this was an endorsement of an idea by someone who is apparently close to the chief minister.

Not only that, there was another report on a meeting of 40 PML-N MPAs from various parts of the province in Lahore. The message emanating from the meeting was the same as had been earlier conveyed with varying degrees of forthrightness: replace Nawaz Sharif with his younger brother as the party head.

This development is not out of the blue. It is consistent with some statements that have come from what is increasingly being referred to as ‘the Shahbaz camp’ within the PML-N. These statements include those made by Hamza Shahbaz, elder son of Shahbaz Sharif and an influential MNA in his own right. The Sharif scion has been advocating a moderate approach after silently watching Maryam Nawaz doing aggressive politics along with her father.

It is generally believed that a more measured, less acrimonious thrust on the part of the PML-N would entail the passing of the leadership mantle to Shahbaz Sharif. Indeed, it is thought that there is increasing demand within the PML-N for such a change and that the party risks losing members to opposing forces if it delays such a transition.

This theory envisages the former prime minister and his daughter retaining a parallel role in the background in case the aggressive drive needs to be rekindled at some stage.

Mr Pirzada has also criticised the change in the law that allowed Nawaz Sharif to be elected as PML-N chief following his disqualification as prime minister; he appeared to suggest that no intra-party debate had taken place before the much-criticised person-specific amendment was rushed through parliament.

Consultation is unlikely even now since it could bring conflicts within the PML-N into public view. Ultimately, in true Pakistani tradition, it is for the family to decide which brother they deem fit to act as head of the PML-N and at what point in time.

But one thing is clear: Shahbaz Sharif being in charge would mean a mellowing of the party position. A shift from the former prime minister, who is understandably very bitter at his removal, to Shahbaz Sharif would signify a fundamental departure.

Though such a transition would not be easy to accomplish, it would perhaps mark the building of a new party altogether.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2017