EVERYONE. You’d think a job that comes with a mandatory ignominious exit and possibly a jail term would have few, or fewer, takers. But everyone wants to be prime minister.

Legitimate contenders though — candidates with a genuine chance the next time round, after the election in July — are just a handful.

We can stick to them.

The PML-N has three options: Nawaz, Shahbaz or someone acceptable to both. Nawaz is a non-starter. Not because he doesn’t want the job again — you just know that if he could, he would — but he’s the one the system wants out.

For Shahbaz, it’s almost now or never. Shahbaz seems to sense it too because his PR machine is swinging into gear and competition with the elder brother’s camp is intensifying.

But presenting himself as candidate for PM is a hard sell for Shahbaz because he hasn’t exactly demonstrated to the boys that he can be relied on to wrest the N-League from Nawaz.

And while Shahbaz may be willing to be a pliant PM, he first has to convince his brother to back him in the election.

Nawaz may yet do that or circumstances, like a sudden conviction in the NAB court, may force Nawaz to do that, but there’s an obvious problem: Nawaz has shown absolutely no interest in making Shahbaz PM.

If Prime Minister Zardari sounds crazy, remember that so did President Zardari not too many years ago.

Shahbaz as PM means control of the party switches and with that the future of the party will switch too. Even if Shahbaz were to promise to let Maryam have an equal shot at inheriting the party after Shahbaz has had his turn, if your name is Maryam, how believable would that be?

Shahbaz is struggling on the three fronts that matter to his elevation.

The third possibility, assuming the N-League wins or is allowed to win anywhere near the seats it needs, is the compromise candidate: one acceptable to both the brothers and the boys too.

The incumbent PM has been tipped as that dark horse. In the N-League, you’re forced to pick sides: you’re either with Nawaz or you’re with Shahbaz. Over the years only very few have managed to have a foot in both Sharif camps.

Khaqan Abbasi is one of them. Plus he’s seen as someone who can work with the boys and keep his head down. He’s insisted though that he isn’t looking to continue and that otherwise scepticism-inducing claim has been buttressed recently.

The PM’s simmering public anger at the Senate heist and now impolitic words about the upcoming election suggest he’s headed for the exits and that his star has dimmed.

Turn to the PTI. Imran looked like the real deal when he unveiled his 11 points; a proper prime minister-in-waiting. A PM for the times who sketched out a full domestic agenda while scrupulously avoiding foreign policy and national security.

But almost as quickly as Prime Minister Khan arrived, another version of himself, the PTI bridesmaid, pulled him back down. Shooting off about the boys and their alleged shenanigans in the last election is about as senseless and undisciplined as it gets.

If a reminder was needed that Imran is mercurial, cannot be trusted and is liable to clash fiercely and senselessly if he ever ascends to the office he has coveted for his entire political life, Imran served up an instant classic. All by himself and without any prompting.

We, and Imran himself, may have to wait a while longer for Prime Minister Khan to happen.

But that doesn’t entirely eliminate the PTI. You can’t see a version of events in which Imran willingly elevates someone other than himself in the party to the PM slot, but there could be a version of events where someone inside the PTI brushes Imran aside to grab the prime ministership.

After Imran, the ones in the party who make headlines are the brash electables or the raw moneyed type. But there are many with vaulting ambitions, what they believe are the right connections and maybe a willingness to plunge the knife in when the time comes.

The stars could yet align for one of them. Think SMQ or Asad Umar.

And then there’s the PPP. If the N-League is broken up, which is still the most likely option, and the PTI fails to take off, which is entirely possible, the PPP could go from kingmaker to demanding the throne itself.

In that case, don’t look past Zardari so quickly. He has already said he wants to be in the National Assembly and his appetite for the game is undiminished. If Prime Minister Zardari sounds crazy, remember that so did President Zardari not too many years ago.

And then there’s the Sanjrani option. A hung parliament, the N-League broken up, the PTI deflated, Zardari looking to make a deal, it could come down to the choice of the boys.

But perhaps less of a nobody than Sanjrani himself or Bizenjo in Balochistan because it’s harder to catapult a total nobody into the National Assembly. Maybe even someone proposed by Zardari from among the independents. You can see Zardari outmanoeuvring Imran if it comes down to it.

But because the PM wields such enormous power and the only ones who can effectively circumscribe that power are the boys and the court, Zardari or Imran could be reluctant to elevate a Sanjrani type to lord it over them.

There is though a scenario in which the right incentive could be created. After the PM is elected in August, the president’s term expires in September.

President Zardari again, anyone?

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2018



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