Opposing narratives

Published September 4, 2021

THE rift within the PML-N over what strategy and narrative its leadership should pursue to resurrect its fortunes is deepening by the day. Even though most PML-N leaders avoid labelling the struggle for dominance between the anti- and pro-establishment opinions of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif as divisive, they do admit to strong differences of opinion between the brothers over which narrative to follow in the run-up to the 2023 elections.

Shehbaz Sharif believes Nawaz Sharif’s very vocal position on the establishment’s direct and indirect interventions in politics is responsible for the PML-N’s present plight. He wants both his brother and his brother’s heir apparent Maryam Nawaz to let him deal with the establishment in order to improve the party’s electoral chances.

Against this backdrop, the public snub the PML-N president received the other day from a party spokesperson dubbing his proposal for the formation of a consensus national government his personal opinion (and leading him to opt for a ‘personal’ spokesperson) was not unexpected. In fact, a few weeks ago, his statement in a TV interview, claiming that the PML-N could have won the 2018 polls and Nawaz Sharif could have become the prime minister had the party followed a different strategy, invited a strong reaction from many PML-N leaders. His assertion was immediately challenged by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who had been entrusted with holding the fort as prime minister by his party after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. Similarly, Ms Nawaz has seldom hidden her contempt for her uncle’s politics. At times, Nawaz Sharif himself has intervened to rebuff his younger brother.

Read: The PML-N’s change of tack

The problem with the two opposing narratives is that the fissures on top are now making their way to the rank and file of the PML-N with increasingly public spats in its second-tier leadership. This is especially true after its defeat in the Azad Kashmir elections, in spite of the big crowds drawn by Ms Nawaz during the campaign, followed by the loss of a provincial seat in Sialkot. These developments have strengthened the view held by the Shehbaz Sharif camp that the PML-N will have little chance of returning to power anytime soon unless its leadership ditches its anti-establishment stance. Yet a majority of PML-N leaders and voters are still inspired by the father-daughter duo’s resistance to the establishment.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the PML-N president reportedly does not discuss his ideas at party forums before making public statements, reinforcing the impression of the growing divide. Or perhaps the PML-N leadership still doesn’t know which road to take. Unless it’s part of a political strategy, the party leadership needs to remove the confusion to play an effective role in national politics. Even though there’s little chance of the party splintering over these differences, the possibility of electables leaving it close to the elections cannot be ruled out.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2021

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