THE PML-N is once again locked into a battle with itself. Party president and Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif’s gesture of inviting the PPP and ANP to a dinner has triggered derision not from the PTI government but from senior PML-N leaders themselves. First former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi fired a salvo at the PPP saying the doors of the PDM were shut for the party unless it replied to the show cause notice, and then Maryam Nawaz later in the day endorsed Mr Abbasi’s statement and took a tough line against the PPP. The result of this intra-party controversy was the rise of renewed speculation that all is not well inside the PML-N and it is falling victim to its own internal contradictions.

This comes at a time when Shehbaz Sharif has turbo-charged his politics and appears to be gradually shifting the PML-N into a more accommodating position. He is representing a body of opinion within the party that wants the policy to be more inclusive towards the opposition and more flexible towards the establishment. The PPP has said repeatedly that it is interested in bringing about an in-house change in Punjab led by the PML-N, and party leader Qamar Zaman Kaira repeated this on Tuesday saying that had the PML-N cooperated, the change in Punjab would have already happened. However, so far there is no clarity about what the PML-N wants in Punjab. In fact, there is little clarity about what the PML-N wants generally, so ambiguous is its strategic outlook.

Mr Sharif’s whirlwind contacts with opposition leaders and his high-profile politics in the last few weeks had suggested that perhaps Nawaz Sharif had decided to give the Shehbaz brand of politics another chance. This was premised on the calculation that in order to get a level playing field in the next elections, the party needed some accommodation with the establishment. While there was no official indication that the PML-N leadership was interested in gradually transforming its approach, Shehbaz Sharif’s proactive politics and the relative silence of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz suggested that a shift was underway. This appears to have either not been the case, or the party has once again started to cut the branch it is sitting on.

The PML-N’s duality is sowing the seeds of confusion within its rank and file. It is also undercutting its political efficacy at a time when the party should be thinking and planning clearly for the next elections. The PTI is a natural beneficiary. It would be more than happy at this internal bickering inside the PML-N knowing that such wrangling within the House of Sharif provides it enough space to focus on its governance issues. With the PDM dysfunctional and the PML-N hacking away at its own limbs, the opposition appears to be the least of the government’s problems.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2021

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