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Bad blood

November 07, 2017

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FOR the first time since 1999, there are serious question marks over the PML-N’s future. A key reason is the family equation: can the Sharif brothers maintain their united front going into the 2018 polls? Or will this family bond break?

All may not stay well. Foremost, for the first time, this is not about the brothers. Both know their moves during the next year may determine their children’s political fortunes. Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif must now think as fathers as they game their politics.

Nawaz has already shown what he’s willing to do to keep this close hold. Most damaging to the party was his decision to overlook the possible gains he could have made by calling early elections after he had been ousted. The PPP and PTI were not ready, and there was discernible sympathy for Nawaz in Punjab.

Many say he didn’t do so because of the 2018 Senate elections. But there was another catch: Maryam Nawaz wasn’t anywhere near ready, and a five-year mandate for Shahbaz at the centre with son Hamza or his appointee in Punjab risked shifting the party’s balance of power in the younger brother’s favour. Nawaz not only opted against this but also kept Shahbaz and Hamza out of the NA-120 campaign. Instead, Maryam was given the opportunity to announce her arrival in the heart of Lahore.

The Sharif brothers know their moves may determine their children’s political fortunes.

Nawaz has reportedly agreed that Shahbaz will be his candidate for prime minister in 2018. This is the party’s only manageable option, but it isn’t a done deal. Those who know Nawaz’s politics say the real plan may still be to fast-track Maryam’s grooming process. This would be a disaster and could bring Nawaz-Shahbaz relations to a head to the party’s detriment.

It would make 2018 a do-or-die scenario for Shahbaz. He would somehow have to make prime minister or else accept that he and Hamza will continue to play second fiddle to Maryam. The problem is that he has no good options to force the issue.

The best he can hope for is for party stalwarts to convince Nawaz that Maryam doesn’t have enough cache yet and that any effort to keep Shahbaz at bay could send the wrong signal down the party chain. Most won’t dare challenge Nawaz.

Also, there is an effort by Nawaz loyalists to find a constitutional way to reverse his ban. As long as Nawaz feels this is an option, he wouldn’t do anything that could weaken his hold in the centre.

The party’s confusion will then persist and Nawaz and Shahbaz loyalists will find it hard to pose a united front for the polls.

The other scenario that may work to remove the leadership confusion would be a Nawaz and Maryam conviction by the courts in a way that puts Maryam’s eligibility in doubt. Shahbaz & Co would then hope Nawaz recognises that eyeing a major role for Maryam would damage the party’s electoral chances.

Of course, this implies that Shahbaz must hope for a negative verdict against his brother. But the bigger problem both must entertain is that an outright conviction could easily trigger defections of ‘electables’ within the PML-N.

Stories of several PML-N legislators already looking towards the establishment for a signal have been making the rounds. Many will surely see the convictions as a sign of the Sharifs being cut to size for good. It’ll be time to jump, and if their next move can be facilitated by the powers that be, the PML-N’s electoral chances would suffer. Perhaps the only way to prevent this would also be to have Shahbaz in the saddle and able to espouse confidence within party ranks when the courts cast the die.

Shahbaz could also conceivably use the khakis’ liking for him over Nawaz to offer his brother some assurance that PML-N-army ties would improve with him at the helm — with all its potential downstream benefits for Nawaz (and the party). For this, he must get Nawaz to take it easy on the army. That he won’t. Nawaz is convinced the army was behind Panamagate and is out to get him again. He sees greater benefit in a poll strategy that portrays him as a victim of judiciary-army collusion.

Finally, Shahbaz loyalists could play hardball with Nawaz. They control much of Punjab’s local patronage and could signal an intent to undermine the campaigns of some Nawaz loyalists. This has happened earlier in exceptional cases.

If Nawaz can’t reconcile with 2018 being too soon for Maryam to rise, he may wreck his equation with his brother and his party’s poll chances. Of course, there is another discussion to be had on how a break in family fiefdoms may be good for Pakistani politics. But that is one for another day.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2017

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