AFTER nearly seven months in jail, PML-N president and leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif has been released on bail. As he is welcomed home, the days ahead will bring an enormous challenge both for his party and the larger opposition. With his return, two critical points need to be addressed.

The first is the power dynamic within the Sharif family. Shehbaz Sharif was arrested in September 2020, just days after the opposition united against the government to create the PDM and his older brother Nawaz Sharif made a scathing speech against the top brass of the security establishment. In the PML-N president’s absence, Maryam Nawaz was the face of the party, filling in for the senior Sharif brother with both her public appearances and her narrative.

It is understood that the senior Sharif will now take over from Ms Nawaz, and lead the party in its anti-government movement. Given Ms Nawaz’s mass public appeal and authoritative rhetoric, are the party and its support base prepared for a switch in tone? It is no secret that Shehbaz Sharif does not subscribe to the PML-N’s stinging narrative about the role of the security establishment in politics. In the past, his preference has been to choose the path of least resistance — a position that contrasts sharply with the mood of the party today. Will the opposition leader be able to reconcile with the direction the party has taken since he was jailed? Undoubtedly, it is a tough situation, and though the narrative of the party may prevail, it remains to be seen how much he will assert himself at this pivotal moment.

As Shehbaz Sharif confronts these changes, the larger challenge of a fractured alliance and warring opposition also looms. A lot has transpired in the period that he was away. The PDM went from being a formidable force to a shadow of its former self. The very public spat between the PML-N and PPP and the latter’s departure from the alliance, too, has diluted the impact of the anti-government drive.

Mr Sharif’s release also coincides with a deepening crisis in the country, as inflation and the coronavirus batter the economy and life itself. The challenge for Mr Sharif is considerable: not only does he have the task of configuring family dynamics ahead of him, he must also reconcile party viewpoints internally — all the while holding the government accountable in his role as opposition leader.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2021

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