With major political crises brewing in Lahore and Islamabad, the PML-N’s high command has been conspicuous by its absence from the political picture. Without any clear direction from the Sharifs at the top, confusion seems to be the order of the day among the party’s rank and file.

In Punjab, the provincial assembly may soon see a run-off election for the chief minister’s post, yet the party does not seem too keen to seize the opportunity. Meanwhile, the beleaguered finance minister has been subjected to public criticism by his younger predecessor, who feels increasingly vindicated in the wake of Ishaq Dar’s flailing response to a steadily-worsening economic crisis.

The PPP has recently been busy wooing ‘electables’ in south Punjab, while the PTI has been preparing for polls. The PML-N, meanwhile, has continued to struggle with its internal divisions.

The N-League seems split in two factions in Punjab; one led by its newly-sceptered Chief Organiser and Senior Vice President, Maryam Nawaz, and the other by Hamza Shehbaz — the prime minister’s son, long considered heir apparent to the Punjab throne.

Both Hamza and Maryam have remained abroad for various reasons in recent months. In their absence, the PML-N’s parliamentary party in the Punjab Assembly appears to have become quite listless. According to party insiders, both are expected to return to the country later this month. Drama will inevitably follow.

“Maryam Nawaz had earlier expressed to her father a wish that she be given the party’s reins in Punjab, as she was interested in the office of chief minister,” a party insider said. But it was Hamza who became chief minister, and he also did not bother to include several lawmakers recommended by Maryam in his cabinet.

“With her new, elevated position, she is now going to oversee the party and its parliamentary affairs in Punjab. Hamza will have to follow her directions,” the source said, adding that there would be wrangling between the two cousins over control of the parliamentary party in Punjab in the coming weeks.

For now, the party’s management has been left to its second-tier leadership.

The PML-N believes that Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi will not be able to secure the vote of confidence sought by Governor Balighur Rehman. A run-off election for his post will follow.

Lack of Sharifs’ involvement in events unfolding in Punjab, failure to mediate between Dar and Miftah make it seem like PML-N is currently ‘rudderless’

With the Sharifs out of the picture, a revolving cast of federal ministers – including Khawaja Asif, Rana Sanaullah, Azam Tarar and Saad Rafique, as well as the PM’s Special Assistant on Interior, Attaullah Tarar – camped out in the Punjab Assembly on Monday and Tuesday to ‘look after’ the PML-N MPAs during an all-important assembly session tied to the CM’s trust vote.

They also attended a parliamentary party meeting and assured the MPAs that the assembly would not be dissolved.

One of the more outspoken federal ministers from Lahore also questioned the “poor performance” of Hamza and his team. He was of the view that the PML-N, as the opposition, had failed to give a tough time to the ruling alliance. “Who is responsible?” he asked.

When the panel was asked who would be responsible for the party’s provincial affairs in the absence of Mr Hamza, Mr Attaullah Tarar said a special committee comprising Rana Sanaullah, Azam Tarar and Saad Rafique had been constituted in this regard, and that he would serve as the focal person.

The chaos within

The party must also contend with the embarrassment inflicted by the Miftah Ismail-Ishaq Dar feud. The spilling of the two finance ministers’ feud into the public domain is a bad look for the ruling party, but this airing of dirty laundry goes beyond just a two-person rivalry.

It is no secret that former finance minister Miftah Ismail is peeved at his unceremonious removal from the finance minister’s post during a London meeting months earlier.

In a recent podcast, he minced no words when he categorically said he was removed after his successor, incumbent finance minister Ishaq Dar, allegedly ran a behind-the-scenes “campaign to undermine him”, and that Mr Dar leveraged his familial relations with Nawaz Sharif to have him removed. Though Mr Ismail’s sympathisers may view this as ‘payback’, none in the party condone his behaviour.

“Miftah went overboard,” a senior N-leaguer recently told Dawn. “One can talk about policy, but you don’t go personal. Yes, it’s a fact that Dar sb and Mian sb have a family connection, but you don’t have to state the facts every day.”

Another felt Mr Ismail’s outburst is hurting the party.

“The public criticism by an ex-finance minister of the incumbent government casts a shadow on our handling of things and creates an unnecessary controversy at a time when the financial situation of the country is precarious,” a cabinet member said, requesting anonymity.

With no real remorse from Mr Ismail, there is a sense of unease within the party. Many feel the situation could have been avoided if the leadership would have been present to “neutralise” any divergent views.

“Usually in these situations, such views are taken to the party leadership, which handles them. Former office bearers express certain views without offending incumbents. Sadly, the leadership required to create such an environment is not there,” said a PML-N source.

The situation, many believe, was mishandled. This strengthens the case for the senior Sharif to return to Pakistan.

With the Sharif brothers and Maryam expected to meet on the sidelines of the donors’ conference in Geneva, they had serious business to discuss. The cash-strapped government has been forced order markets, malls and wedding halls to close early to save on energy bills.

Inflation has hit an already battered public hard. Nawaz is keen to give the nation relief, while PTI Chairman Imran Khan is exploiting the government’s vulnerability to strengthen his own narrative.

Everyone is thinking of elections, though no date has materialised. PML-N leaders are being approached by ex-Imran loyalists, as well as by those who are wary of the establishment. Though many in the PML-N are confident that the army is not pro-Imran, many admit they cannot rely on the establishment’s “neutrality” alone come election.

“Mian sb has to return,” a Lahore-based N-leaguer told Dawn. “Shehbaz sb can’t do politics the way Mian sb can… he can’t connect with people the same way. Every person in the party feels he should return, and get to work the minute he gets here. Whether he can contest or not, doesn’t matter. But his presence is critical for perception. It will also show he has a green signal from other quarters, even if that is not the case.”

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2023

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