Sharif dynasty’s new face

Published February 28, 2024
The writer is an author and journalist
The writer is an author and journalist

SHE had long been groomed as heir apparent to the country’s most prominent political dynasty and her election as Punjab’s chief minister this week marked her crowning. Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, now holds one of the most powerful political positions in the country.

With uncle Shehbaz Sharif assured of being elected prime minister for the second time, the Sharif family is fully back in the saddle. The spectacle at the swearing-in ceremony in Lahore, with a beaming newly elected chief minister sitting between father and uncle on the stage, was most revealing.

A sombre-looking Nawaz Sharif and his ebullient younger brother watched the passing of the baton to the new generation. Maryam exuded a strong sense of entitlement as she stood up to take oath for the coveted position that perhaps matters most for the family’s hold on power. It provides yet another ironical twist to the ongoing power game. The family has regained control of its bastion but with questionable legitimacy.

It is apparent that the family’s return to power largely owes itself to the support of the same power that was responsible for its ouster a few years back. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for a dynasty that seems to have lost much political capital in the process. Widespread allegations of manipulation of the electoral results have cast a dark shadow over the transition of power.

It’s a Pyrrhic victory for a dynasty that seems to have lost much political capital.

Nawaz Sharif had returned home after years in self-exile in the hope of winning a fourth term as prime minister, but he chose to step down in favour of his younger brother after his party failed to win a majority in the elections. He obviously would not have liked to head a coalition of disparate elements.

But there seems to be another, perhaps more plausible, reason behind his decision, ie, to make it possible for his daughter to take charge in Punjab. The patriarch is certainly not out of politics and will remain the main power behind the scenes and keep the family together.

Yet it may not be an easy ride for the Sharifs, who have gone through cycles of rise and fall over the past four decades. It’s not just that the PML-N will be heading a minority government at the centre; there will also be a coalition government in Punjab. The party has been able to muster a majority in the provincial assembly after winning over the loyalty of a number of independents.

It was not an auspicious start for the new Punjab Assembly session, with a huge police force deployed outside the building on the lookout for some PTI members, including the opposition candidate for chief minister, who is wanted in several cases. Aslam Iqbal and several other PTI members won the elections while in hiding.

With the police chasing him, Iqbal could not file his nomination papers, and the PTI-backed independents, who have joined the Sunni Ittehad Council, had to name another candidate for the post at the last minute. Meanwhile, the party has still not received its share of reserved seats for women and religious minorities. The group at the end boycotted the election, allowing Maryam Nawaz to get elected unopposed as the first woman chief minister in Pakistan.

Maryam has been associated with the PML-N for many years, largely working behind the scenes before actively joining politics in her father’s third term. Her role became more prominent after Sharif’s ouster from power in 2017 and his conviction. She rapidly rose in the party’s hierarchy. The ‘talented’ daughter was appointed vice president over and above the senior leaders of the party.

Maryam had also been convicted in the Panama case and sent to jail briefly raising her stakes as heir apparent. The episode catapulted her onto the national political stage. She became the face of resistance with her powerful anti-establishment speeches. Her rallies drew large crowds that helped to revitalise the party. Her role was also a huge departure from the party’s conservative culture that discouraged putting women in leadership positions. But that charisma was soon lost as her speeches lacked substance.

Meanwhile, her appointment as the party’s senior vice president and chief organiser, which virtually made her the third most powerful person in the PML-N hierarchy after her father and uncle, has proved divisive.

Many senior party leaders openly expressed reservations over her premature elevation. Most prominent among them was Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, one of the most senior PML-N leaders and former federal interior minister, who left the party over the issue. The most recent one to exit the party is former prime minister and the PML-N’s senior vice president Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. He also quit the party after being superseded by the much junior daughter of the party leader.

It has been very obvious that the family comes first in order to maintain its dynastic hold over the party and national power politics. It is not surprising that the party’s mass support base has dwindled over the years, with no induction of new blood from outside the family.

While support from the security establishment may have helped the dynasty return to power, it can’t remain propped up for long without delivering on good governance and addressing the grave challenges faced by the country. The elections, though rigged, must come as a wake-up call for dynastic politics.

Indeed, Maryam’s inaugural speech in the assembly, though unnecessarily long, seemed well-prepared signifying her government’s human development priorities.

There was more about her government’s future plans than lamenting what had happened in the past. She also called for reconciliation with the opposition, but with the denial of democratic rights these are just hollow words signifying nothing. Punjab has the largest number of political prisoners.

She also talked about women’s rights but forgot to mention female political prisoners languishing in jails for months without charge. If Pakistan’s first woman chief minister wants a new beginning she must start with the release of political prisoners and bring an end to human right violations.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

X: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2024

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