LAHORE: Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz has got yet another excuse to delay the expansion of the provincial cabinet after Lahore High Court recently hinted at run-off poll for the CM’s office and by-elections being held on 20 seats in the province on July 17.

As Hamza has been running the government with eight cabinet members for about a month, there has been internal party pressure to include more.

“Hamza, with the blessing of his father Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has managed to delay expansion of the provincial cabinet for one more month at least,” a party insider told Dawn on Wednesday.

Even some names given by PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz for their inclusion in the cabinet are not being entertained by Hamza and company, he says.

“Earlier Hamza had conveyed to Maryam, Aleem Khan (a leader of PTI dissidents) and some senior PML-N lawmakers that cabinet expansion would be made on June 27 and their recommended names will be accommodated. Now, he got an excuse that as the LHC may order run-off election for the CM’s office, therefore it will not be wise to go for cabinet expansion,” he says, adding Mr Hamza is following in the footsteps of his father who ran the government in Punjab in the past with only a handful of ministers.

Another PML-N leader blames “Panch payarey (favourite five)” for running the whole government along with their boss (Hamza). “Actually, three of these five ministers, who have been assigned portfolios, are more influential and closer to Hamza. So they conveniently manage to deflect any pressure coming from within the party for expansion of the cabinet,” he says.

Interestingly, Hamza Shehbaz would blame President Dr Arif Alvi and former governor Omar Sarfraz Cheema for creating hurdles in the cabinet formation, but now [after getting the excuses] he is in no hurry to have a full cabinet.

“Even ‘displeasure’ has been conveyed to Hamza from London [where PML-N Quaid Nawaz Sharif has been living since Nov 2019] for not expanding the cabinet, but he is adamant about having his own working plan,” the PML-N leader from Punjab further says.

“Hamza thinks that expansion in the cabinet may cause problems for the party ahead of July 17 by-polls as many lawmakers will be annoyed. Therefore, it is better to buy more time,” he says.

Still without portfolios

Of the eight cabinet members, Hamza has so far given portfolios to three – Atta Tarar (home), Malik Ahmad Khan (law) and Awais Leghari (temporary portfolio of finance). The other five – Rana Iqbal, Khwaja Salman Rafique and Bilal Asghar of the PML-N and Hasan Murtaza and Ali Gilani of the allied PPP are yet to be given portfolios and they are told to wait “a little bit more for the ministries of their choice”.

Interestingly, Salman Rafique has been chairing meetings of the health department, anticipating to get the health portfolio as he remained the health minister in the previous Shehbaz cabinet. The PPP’s Murtaza has been claiming to be ‘senior minister’ and issuing press statements mentioning the portfolio.

Issues with coalition partner

Although the PML-N claims to have sorted out the ministries issues with the PPP, which has seven seats in the Punjab Assembly, still the coalition partner’s lawmakers are looking for portfolios and ministries.

The PPP was interested in portfolios like finance and communication & works, but the junior Shehbaz seems to be in no mood to give these important ministries to the party of the Bhuttos.

A PPP leader told Dawn that the Sharifs had agreed to give five ministries to the PPP, including that of education, irrigation and agriculture. “However, the PML-N is tactfully delaying the cabinet expansion in order to deny us the promised ministries,” he said.

In consultation with his father, CM Hamza is running the provincial government and trying to give an impression that he is not ‘Buzdar of the PTI government’, chairing meetings and meeting the public. However, his focus also remains on postings and transfers of civil and police bureaucracy.

Since Hamza has lost the majority in the Punjab Assembly after the Election Commission de-seated 25 dissident MPAs of PTI for voting for him, he has managed to rope in three out of the four rebel PML-N MPs to save his position in case he has to contest a run-off election against PTI-PMLQ joint candidate Chaudhry Parvez Elahi. And for the purpose, the PML-N top leadership has pardoned the ‘expelled’ MPAs – Ashraf Ansari from Gujranwala, Muhammad Ghiasuddin from Narowal and Mian Jalil Ahmed Sharaqpuri from Sheikhupura – despite the fact that they had openly criticised Nawaz Sharif for “targeting the army leadership and fleeing the country”.

Maryam’s dilemma

As Maryam Nawaz is asked to lead the election campaign of the 20 PTI dissidents whom ousted premier Imran Khan and his party call ‘lotas’ (turncoats), she is in two minds whether to seek votes for them or not, a party source says.

“It seems difficult for Maryam to decide whether to campaign for the turncoats, as it may not reflect well politically on her. However, she may have to succumb to the pressure from the leadership as Hamza’s stay in chief minister’s office depends on the fate of these PTI dissidents,” the source says.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2022

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