A recent photograph from London showed Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif dressed in red trousers, matching red socks and shoes and a red muffler, with a face mask stuck to his chin like a permanent fixture. He looked very different from the man who had departed Pakistan four years ago after having been granted permission by the Lahore High Court to seek medical treatment abroad.
After his return to Pakistan on October 21, the three-time former prime minister has surely encountered a transformed atmosphere from when he left. In many ways, it appears to be a far more congenial environment, where the odds seem stacked in his favour.
While he had departed in the wake of a ‘project’ aimed at implementing a hybrid system that blended Imran Khan’s populism with the de-facto authority of the establishment, he has returned as part of another project — one that has the goal of burying the initial endeavour.
In this new era, his own party seems to hold the position of the King’s party, acting as the driving force behind a reinvigorated hybrid system that the Shehbaz Sharif government has legitimised through a series of legislative measures.
While his party’s faithful are busy portraying Nawaz Sharif as a messiah who will usher in a period of economic prosperity for Pakistan with his return to the country, the septuagenarian leader first needs to focus on getting his own party in order
However, the political landscape has also undergone significant changes in terms of public sentiment over the past one and a half years — since Imran Khan’s government was ousted. Midterm elections, public opinion polls, on-street sentiments and the responses to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) calls for public gatherings all point towards the League grappling with an unprecedented decline in popularity.
While there is a general consensus on the party’s diminished appeal, questions arise as to whether this decline in public support primarily stems from the substantial economic challenges faced after the party assumed power following the vote-of-no-confidence against Imran Khan, or if other factors have also played a substantial role.
Another critical question is whether Nawaz Sharif, after his return to Pakistan from England, can actually spearhead a revival within the party.
A PARTY IN NEED OF A REBIRTH
After seemingly being written off from politics for the second time, Nawaz has once again pulled off a political resurrection. Just like in 1999, when Gen Pervez Musharraf sent him packing to Saudi Arabia, Nawaz was also written off in 2019, when he left for London under similar circumstances.
What sets this return apart is the magnitude of challenges that he and his party confront upon his return to Pakistan. When he returned from Saudi Arabia in 2007, the political landscape had not changed significantly. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) — a party hastily assembled by a military dictator and led by uninspiring figures lacking charisma — had little chance when two political giants, Benazir Bhutto and Sharif, re-entered the political arena.
This time, however, he faces a new challenge in the form of a party that has eroded a portion of his voter base in urban Punjab. Imran Khan, his primary rival, is currently in prison, and his party is encountering difficulties similar to what Sharif and the PML-N faced after being ousted by Musharraf. However, the significant surge in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) popularity has unnerved the PML-N.
In defiance of a court order, the PML-N-led Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government postponed elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) for a year, while the elections at the centre will take place six months after the dissolution of the National Assembly, contrary to constitutional obligations. This delay was orchestrated by approving the Population and Housing Census from the Council of Common Interests and using it as a constitutional pretext for postponing the polls.
Believing that the decline in its popularity was primarily because of their recent time in office, the PML-N has attempted to create a time gap between their government and the upcoming polls. This strategy is meant to serve as a memory buffer, aiming to make people forget the bitter experiences of economic hardships endured during the PDM government.
The party has also sought to distance itself from that period by presenting Nawaz Sharif as a fresh solution. In essence, both the elder Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz are striving not to take ownership of the party’s rule under Shehbaz Sharif.
However, Nawaz’s attempt to govern through remote control during Shehbaz’s tenure was, in fact, a major reason for the disarray in governance. One of Nawaz’s most questionable decisions was imposing Ishaq Dar upon Shehbaz.
Even while in London, Dar had attempted to undermine Shehbaz’s finance minister, Miftah Ismail, criticising him for conceding too much to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), when Ismail had tried to revive the IMF programme that had been suspended under the PTI government. A leaked audio had also revealed Maryam Nawaz’s disdain for the Wharton-educated economist.
Ismail was unceremoniously removed, and Dar was brought to Islamabad to take charge of Pakistan’s economy. He also doubled as Nawaz’s de facto representative, handling various important political matters alongside economic affairs. Contrary to his boasts from London, Dar failed to secure any concessions from the IMF. Instead, he caused the suspension of the IMF programme at a time when Pakistan could ill afford it.
Pakistan’s credit rating and several other indicators reached a default level and inflation skyrocketed. Towards the end of the PDM government, the IMF programme was finally revived only after Shehbaz personally intervened and resolved issues with the global lender.
The Sharif family’s nepotism and selective patronage have alienated various demographics from the party. The PML-N’s system of ‘merit’ operates within three concentric circles. At the core lies the ‘royal family’, where brothers, sons, daughters, sons-in-law and fathers of sons-in-law are given precedence over more deserving candidates within the party. The most attractive positions are reserved for family members.
POLITICS OF PATRONAGE
The Dar disaster is indicative of the deep-seated problems within the party.
The Sharif family’s nepotism and selective patronage have alienated various demographics from the party. The PML-N’s system of ‘merit’ operates within three concentric circles. At the core lies the ‘royal family’, where brothers, sons, daughters, sons-in-law and fathers of sons-in-law are given precedence over more deserving candidates within the party. The most attractive positions are reserved for family members, with outsiders rarely allowed to access them. The way the Karachi-based Ismail was humiliated and Dar was brought in serves as a recent example of this attitude.
Beyond the family, the Sharif’s Kashmiri clan takes precedence over other Punjabi clans in the distribution of rewards. Despite being a small caste in Punjab, the clan consistently claims a lion’s share of the cabinet posts, often securing the most desirable positions. These leaders also constitute the kitchen cabinet, deciding how the remaining spoils will be distributed.
Whatever is left is allocated to Lahore and then along the GT Road. The rest of Pakistan is often marginalised, left to be content with meagre offerings.
This approach has not only excluded the elite from other regions of Pakistan but has also marginalised a significant portion of the population. Pakistan operates on a patronage system and areas that remain outside the sphere of power also lose out on development funds and resources.
It is no coincidence then that KP, South Punjab and Karachi were among the most ardent supporters of the PTI and the party provided them with a fair share of power. The PML-N stubbornly fails to understand the anger of the periphery and how it is affecting Pakistan’s mainstream politics.
If Nawaz Sahrif has a roadmap to address the country’s financial challenges, why did he not share it with his brother when his party was ruling the country? And even more importantly, does he have any team members that were not part of the Shehbaz Sharif government?
Since the PML-N’s politics is centred on the living room, family affairs affect the party disproportionately. The party is currently facing a significant challenge due to its troubled dynastic transition of power.
It’s noteworthy that almost all dynastic parties in Pakistan are currently going through generational shifts. The Awami National Party (ANP) is in the process of transferring leadership to its fourth generation, while the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) are handing over the reins to the third generation. However, for the relatively new entrant to dynastic politics, the PML-N, it is undergoing only its second-generation transfer.
When Nawaz was ousted, imprisoned and later allowed to go into exile, his brother assumed his role. However, the attempt to implement a Saudi-style horizontal succession faced difficulties from the very beginning. Shehbaz struggled to transition from being a manager to a leader, and Nawaz himself was unwilling to relinquish his authority.
After his removal from power in 1999, Nawaz had been grooming his elder son, Hussain Nawaz, as his successor. However, Hussain lost interest in politics during his imprisonment following Musharraf’s coup. During Nawaz’s government in 2013, he reluctantly allowed some space for Maryam.
In 2013, during the PML-N government, Maryam was appointed as the chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme (PMYP). Nevertheless, in 2014, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) ruled that her appointment was illegal, citing her lack of qualifications for the position and nepotism as the basis for its decision. Consequently, her stint as the head of the youth programme was short-lived.
Subsequently, Maryam took charge of a social media wing within the party to counter the challenges posed by PTI. While Maryam briefly enjoyed popularity when she challenged Imran’s government and its ties with the establishment, attracting admiration from party workers and large crowds, it seemed only for a while that she might replace her father — at least in terms of the party’s need for a charismatic leader.
However, her inconsistent style of political activism, characterised by alternating periods of high activity followed by prolonged absences, made it challenging for her to maintain a consistent political persona. This approach seemed to have been employed ostensibly to provide Shehbaz with an opportunity to negotiate with the establishment. But it became evident that Maryam was not fully capable, yet, of stepping into her father’s shoes as the party’s leader.
The second line of the Sharif family also had a chance to step up. Shehbaz’s son, Hamza Sharif, was given a powerful position. However, his tenure as chief minister was beset by challenges and was perceived as an unsuccessful experiment in parallel succession. This approach led to discontent within the party’s leadership.
Similar to the PPP a decade earlier, the PML-N appears to have fallen out of favour with the younger generation. Parties with internal democracy tend to revitalise themselves by introducing new, energetic leadership and by presenting fresh branding and policy alternatives.
However, the PML-N seems trapped in a time-warp, with the average age of its top leadership hovering around 70 years. New leaders only seem to emerge when an existing leader passes away, and their son or daughter is often granted a place in parliament.
These parties have effectively shut the door on young leadership through their unwillingness to foster greater participation within their parties and their hesitancy to fully implement a functional local government system. Their resistance to embracing these mechanisms stems from their desire to perpetuate a politics of patronage, rather than distributing power and resources more equitably downward to younger leaders and at the grassroots level.
Similarly, the PML-N has made little effort to appeal to new demographics, even as the younger generation within the demographics it represents grows disinterested in the party.
It’s worth noting that a substantial number of new young voters have been added to the electoral rolls in recent years. In the 2018 general election, approximately 20 million new voters were added, and this trend has continued, with the addition of 21 million new voters in the electoral rolls for 2024.
This influx of new voters could significantly impact the political landscape and the dynamics of upcoming elections, potentially reshaping the electoral outcomes and the strategies of political parties.
The party has not only struggled to understand the mindset of the younger generation but has also failed to effectively communicate with them.
For over a decade, the PML-N has been ensnared in the communication narratives crafted by its chief rival, Imran Khan, and often merely reacting to his messaging. Consequently, the Sharif family has been unable to shake off the negative image that has become associated with them, especially in the aftermath of the former prime minister’s imprisonment.
The PML-N’s strategy to engage the youth primarily involves distributing laptops to university students, extending support to anti-PTI social media influencers, and establishing social media cells and digital platforms. However, without a comprehensive effort to modernise, revitalise and rejuvenate the party as a platform fit for the 21st century, these measures offer limited value.
The party believes, however, that Nawaz can pull off another miracle. He has had an incredible political journey, full of surprises, twists and turns. Luck has always smiled upon him in the game of political snakes and ladders. And this is what the party leadership is again banking on.
THE MANY RESURRECTIONS OF NAWAZ SHARIF
Veteran Punjab politico and former PM Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s autobiography humorously recounts Nawaz’s humble political beginnings. He shares the tale of a fair-skinned Kashmiri young man who once appeared at the doorstep of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, offering financial support for the upcoming elections.
Perhaps the naive young man was unaware that the Chaudhrys needed no investors. It might have been an attempt to establish a rapport with a family closely associated with the then dictator Gen Ziaul Haq. However, his offer was politely declined, and the young man left without even a cup of tea being offered.
It was Gen Zia, the Chaudhrys’ mentor, who eventually formed a connection with the young man and his family. Zia, himself stemming from modest origins, felt uneasy around the traditional elite entrenched in agriculture. Instead, he found comfort with self-made industrialists who had experienced challenges under former PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime. With Zia having ousted Bhutto, it made them Zia’s natural allies.
During his initial political journey, Nawaz primarily functioned as a successful organiser of social and socio-economic groups that harboured concerns about Bhutto’s daughter Benazir’s return to power. He skilfully brought the traditional elite into his fold through an intricate patronage network, unlike anything Pakistan had witnessed before.
This played a pivotal role in diverting people’s allegiance away from the PPP, effectively transforming central Punjab into a pro-establishment region after a considerable period.
Under Nawaz Sharif’s leadership in Punjab, the province remained under the influence of the capitalist class. However, the distinctions among various elite groups became increasingly blurred, as the traditional elite and the offspring of the salaried class evolved into crony capitalists in substantial numbers.
By the time he was ousted from power in 1999, Nawaz had transcended his modest beginnings. He had transformed from being merely an anti-Bhutto figure and an organiser of anti-Bhutto factions into a leader of millions and the head of a popular political party. His establishment of a widely recognised national political party marked an achievement previously realised only by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In 2007, Nawaz returned to the country as a noticeably transformed individual. Not only had his appearance changed, but his vocabulary and demeanour had also undergone a noticeable shift. Most notably, he seemed to have shed his previously combative nature and the ruthless political instincts he was known for.
For the first time, he engaged in an election campaign without a confrontational approach, successfully regaining much of the ground he had lost to the ‘King’s party’, the PML-Q led by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat.
Nawaz adhered to the principles of the Charter of Democracy — signed between himself and Benazir Bhutto in May 2006 — to a significant extent during this period. Key developments, such as the smooth passing of the 18th Amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission (NFC) award, can be attributed to his new conciliatory leadership.
However, the influence of Nawaz 1.0 occasionally clashed with the more moderate Nawaz 2.0. He supported some of the excesses of the judiciary and cooperated with the establishment in subjecting Asif Ali Zardari to scrutiny.
During his own rule post-2013, the party found itself being pulled in two different directions, with the powerful interior minister Chaudhry Nisar representing the older Nawaz and a host of other impatient leaders more aligned with the evolved Nawaz.
ONE PARTY TO RULE THEM ALL
The beleaguered PPP, grappling with the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, faced an uphill battle in maintaining its voter base. Under the leadership of Zardari, the PPP’s share of the national vote dwindled from 31 percent in 2008 to a mere 15 percent in 2013, which further declined to 13 percent in the 2018 elections. Today, it is predominantly viewed as an ethnically Sindhi party, heavily reliant on Sindhi identity and an extensive patronage network for its survival.
In contrast, the PML-N managed to increase its voter base from 23 percent to 33 percent during this period. However, in the controversial 2018 elections, its vote bank once again contracted to 24 percent.
Remarkably, the PTI, almost non-existent on the political landscape in 2008, was able to secure 17 percent of the votes in 2013, nearly equal to the loss suffered by the PPP, and it surged to 32 percent in the 2018 elections. With Imran Khan now in prison and the remaining leadership of the PTI under tremendous pressure, the PML-N hopes to regain its lost space.
The public gathering at the Minar-i-Pakistan on October 21 on Nawaz Sharif’s return was meant to symbolise a shift in the fortunes of the party. Lately, the official social media accounts of the PML-N have been harking back to the party’s “bright” political past and economic performance under the stewardship of Nawaz. The party is trying to portray Nawaz as the messiah who will bring economic prosperity to Pakistan.
The party wants the nation to believe that Nawaz has the roadmap to address the country’s financial challenges. However, with Dar on one side and Shehbaz on the other, there may be questions about the credibility of his promises for a brighter economic future.
If he has a roadmap, why did he not share it with his brother when his party was ruling the country? And even more importantly, does he have any team members that were not part of the Shehbaz government?
Similar to how PTI benefited from the decline of the PPP, it now seems to be capitalising on the PML-N’s diminishing popularity. If given an open hand, the PTI could well present stiff competition to the PML-N. However, post the events of May 9, the chances of PTI receiving a level playing field in the 2024 elections seem slim. Given its association with the establishment, the PML-N might well once again ascend to power in the upcoming elections. The real test for it will be whether it can adapt and thrive as a party for the next generation. The alternative would be a slow but inevitable decline in the years ahead.
The writer holds a degree in social anthropology from the University of London and works in the field of social development. X: @zaighamkhan
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 22nd, 2023