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PML-N in a bind over ex-PM’s fate

Updated October 21, 2017
  • Punjab minister Sarwar concedes most party members are ‘confused’
  • Lalika says MPAs never demanded or discussed Nawaz’s replacement with Shahbaz
  • Sheikh Rashid predicts over 70 PML-N lawmakers will cut and run

LAHORE/RAWALPINDI: A day after a senior PML-N legislator criticised the election of a disqualified Nawaz Sharif as the party head and suggested Shahbaz Sharif lead the ruling Muslim League instead, more people on Friday appeared to be willing to embrace the idea.

Federal Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordina­tion Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada told reporters at the National Press Club in Islamabad on Thursday that Shahbaz Sharif should lead the party — apparently since Nawaz Sharif was facing trial in corruption cases.

Editorial: Nawaz or Shahbaz?

Differences between the two brothers and their heirs apparent — Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz — became public knowledge when Hamza chose to air his concerns before media after he and his father failed to dissuade the elder Sharif and his daughter from adopting a policy of confrontation with institutions, particularly after the Supreme Court announced its verdict in the Panama Papers case ousting Nawaz Sharif from office.

Now it appears that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has been cementing his position for an impending behind-the-scenes battle aimed at taking up the reins of the party, as he met long-time friend former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Friday to discuss party affairs with him.

And one of the Punjab cabinet members, Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, conceded that the party lacked a clear direction and most of its members “are confused”.

The meeting between Chaudhry Nisar and Shahbaz Sharif was being seen as of great importance since both have been on the same page since the Panama Papers controversy emerged.

“Both want Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz to avoid a clash with the army and the judiciary and face accountability without much complaint,” a PML-N leader said.

A close aide to Nawaz Sharif said that even if the court had restrained the former premier from holding the office of the party president the post might not have been given to Shahbaz Sharif on a platter.

“Do not rule out Maryam Nawaz’s chances to don the cap of the party president in such a scenario,” he said, adding that Shahbaz Sharif’s role would remain confined to Punjab even after the next general elections.

In a related development on Friday, Railways Minister Saad Rafique telephoned Mr Pirzada and asked him about his proposal to replace Nawaz Sharif with his brother.

“I told him [Saad Rafique] that what I had said is in the best interest of the party,” Mr Pirzada said.

There were, however, some PML-N politicians who remained unconvinced.

Minister of State for Interior Affairs Talal Chaudhry said there could be a difference of opinion in the party but “there is one leader in the PML-N and he is Nawaz Sharif”.

Had anyone asked Shahbaz Sharif if he was interested in becoming the president of the party, he raised the question.

“Similar ideas were floated during the Musharraf regime,” Mr Chaudhry said, adding that after Nawaz Sharif, his brother was the most senior leader in the party and he was always there to rescue the party when such a time came.

‘Lost’ lawmakers meet

The situation has left the party’s parliamentarians worried. They want Nawaz Sharif to give them a ‘clear road map’ going into 2018 elections and tell them who will lead them in the election campaign.

They are having meetings in groups to share their growing concern about the future of the party and its direction.

In background interviews, some PML-N legislators said it was the time both brothers (Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif) sat with the party men and told them how they would go into 2018 — with confrontation mode with the judiciary and the army or the party’s development agenda. Besides, who will lead the party in the election campaign when Nawaz Sharif and his children are facing the graft cases.

A few of the PML-N lawmakers endorsed Riaz Pirzada’s criticism of the election of the party head and termed his proposal to replace Nawaz Sharif with his brother a ‘workable solution’.

“At the moment most of us (parliamentarians) are confused and want Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif to have a sitting with us to give us a clear direction leading to next year’s election,” Punjab Minister for Labour and Human Resource Raja Ashfaq Sarwar told Dawn.

Mr Sarwar has recently attended a meeting of a group of over two-dozen MPAs, mostly from south Punjab, in Lahore in which the proposal of either forming a forward bloc to negotiate better terms with the Sharifs ahead of election or backing Shahbaz Sharif as party president was reportedly discussed.

Answering a question, Mr Sarwar laughed off at the idea of forward bloc in the PML-N, particularly in Punjab, and clarified that he and some 20 MPAs were invited by MPA Shaukat Lalika at his residence, where they discussed growing unrest in the party because of having no ‘future’ direction.

“Similarly whenever the party legislators meet these days they discuss the same things,” Mr Sarwar said and added that Nawaz Sharif on his return next week would be requested to give them time and decide the future action plan.

“So far the idea of replacing Mian sahib with Shahbaz Sharif is a non-issue in the party. Nawaz Sharif is important for us and he has vote bank. But the party men want to know how to move forward,” he said.

Mr Lalika told Dawn that he had hosted dinner for his uncle, Ashfaq Sarwar, who recently performed Haj. “I also invited about three dozen other party MPAs to the feast. We discussed the party matters and the coming election.”

He said the party was united under the Sharif brothers. “We never demanded or discussed replacement of Mian sahib with Shahbaz Sharif,” he said.

Punjab government spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan said: “There has been consensus in the PML-N that Mian sahib should remain the party president as it is united under his leadership. The whole politics of the party revolves around him. However, it is the advice of the pragmatists to the party president to restrain the hawks to neutralise the “PML-N G.T. Road political discourse and NA-120 by-poll campaign’s strategy of confrontation. There should be no confrontation with institutions”.

About the concerns of the party legislators, Mr Ahmad said: “Our party men want elections. Confrontational path may delay elections, they fear. And at the same time if they are not told about who will be candidate for the office of prime minister after the 2018 election, at least they should be told who will lead the election campaign,” he said.

Sheikh Rasheed foresees end of ‘Sharif politics’

Meanwhile, Awami Muslim League (AML) president Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has predicted that the PML-N is a divided house and its parliamentarians will leave the “Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif” in the coming days.

“Earlier, I said 40 parliamentarians are ready to leave the party but now I am sure that more than 70 will do so, including Prime Minister [Shahid Khaqan] Abbasi, Chaudhry Nisar and Saad Rafique,” the AML chief claimed at a public meeting outside his residence Lal Haveli in Rawalpindi.

The gathering was held to protest against the government for “trying to bring changes in Khatm-i-Nabuwwat laws”.

Sheikh Rasheed said, “Next three months are very crucial for Pakistani politics and before March all the corrupt and the ruling elite of PML-N will be kicked out.”

He said the politics of the Sharif family would come to an end the day when the Hudaibya Paper Mills case, which pertains to the “mother of all crime”, would open.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2017