AT a party convention in Rawalpindi, PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif declared that the cantonment board elections had shown that his party would defeat the ruling PTI if the polls were held in a free and transparent manner. Addressing a charged audience, Mr Sharif proclaimed that fair elections were not a mere demand but a right. It was noteworthy that the party president did not call for the immediate ouster of the PTI government, which was the original goal of the opposition alliance PDM, but asked the workers to get ready to ‘bury’ the PTI in the general elections.

Mr Sharif’s confident tone was a reflection of the political buoyancy that he has gained after an impressive showing in the cantonment polls. The campaign for these polls, as well as the candidate selection and other organisational matters, was overseen and supervised by party leaders who are considered close to the younger Sharif. The success in the polls is therefore attributed to the Shehbaz Sharif camp and has increased his weight in the intra-party tussle between the so-called pragmatists and hardliners.

However, the cleavage between the two camps appears to be widening, as evidenced by the latest public disagreement between two key party leaders on a matter of critical importance. Last week, Maryam Nawaz Sharif told journalists she had not been part of the “sin” of supporting an extension for the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. However, shortly thereafter Hamza Shehbaz said in a media interaction that the party decision in favour of the extension was the correct one. While the party struggles with this dual narrative, it appears that Shehbaz Sharif is getting more assertive in party affairs and galvanising the rank and file to buckle up for the elections. He is also said to be making an effort to build bridges with the establishment to ensure that the PML-N gets a fair shot at victory in the general elections.

Editorial: The rift within the PML-N is deepening by the day

Still, it remains unclear whether former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is on board with the efforts of his younger brother. The widening differences within the party show that Nawaz Sharif is taking a back seat and allowing the intra-party tussle to gain traction. His inaction on this front may be linked to some political strategy but the immediate fallout is that the leadership is working at cross purposes while the rank and file grows more confused by the day.

The organisational meetings underway since the last few weeks, and frequently addressed by Nawaz Sharif himself, point to a concerted push towards political mobilisation at the local level, but unless the strategic orientation of the party leadership does not become clear, the PML-N will continue to remain distracted fighting its own demons. The sooner the party can untangle these contradictions, the more prepared it will be to go into the electoral battle with its focus and clarity restored.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2021

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