Nawaz Sharif has made the correct decision. At this point of time, Shahbaz Sharif is the best bet for the PML-N as well as for Pakistan. However, the PML-N leader would do well to become more consultative, and also address some of the genuine misgivings of party, writes Tridivesh Singh Maini for South Asia Monitor
By Tridivesh Singh Maini
Nawaz Sharif, former Pakistani prime minister and president of the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N), has chosen his brother and Chief Minister of Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, as the (PML)-N’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 elections. The decision, announced December 20, 2017, was made during a meeting with senior PML-N leaders at Nawaz’s residence outside Lahore.
This was largely to be expected, given the nature of dynastic politics in general, and the family- centred politics of the PML-N in particular.
Nawaz Sharif’s choice sends a clear message that the reported strains between both brothers, caused largely by the ambitions of their respective children Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz, have been addressed for the time being . After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz was expected to be his natural choice as his successor – both as prime minister and party president. After his disqualification from public office by the Pakistan Supreme Court, strains in the Sharif family resulted in Nawaz choosing current incumbent Shahid Khakan Abbasi as interim prime minister.
The reason cited for not appointing Shahbaz as PM in July 2017 was that the party wanted him to remain in Punjab and overlook the implementation of key projects. Analysts believed that if Shahbaz took over as PM, Hamza Shahbaz would have become chief minister of Punjab.
At the meeting on December 20, Nawaz did allude to Shahbaz’s differences with the party over certain issues. But he praised his commitment to the party, saying, “Shahbaz has always worked to further the party policies for public welfare and this unflagging attitude earned him the opportunity to be trusted for a higher office. Shahbaz has had difference of opinion over some issues yet his commitment to the party overrules all else, which is why he has never violated the party discipline,”
By choosing Shahbaz, Nawaz has arrested further deterioration in ties between the brothers and also any sort of rebellion, since a number of senior party leaders have been uncomfortable with the rise of Nawaz’ daughter, Maryam Nawaz. Apart from the fact, that she is inexperienced, Maryam is also accused of impropriety in the Panama Papers case.
Beyond the politics of the Sharif family and the dynamics of the PML-N, Shahbaz’s candidature is important at a time when ties between the civilian government and the military are at a low point. Shahbaz is more acceptable to the army, and has a better relationship with GHQ than Nawaz.
A mellowed and mature Nawaz Sharif realizes that any confrontation will not help the country either politically or economically, and the military would seek to cash in on the corruption cases against him.
The establishment (Army and ISI) has already worked, not just in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, but also in propping up the Milli Muslim League (a front of Lashkar-e-Taiba, LeT) while publicly making the right noises.
An important step taken by the Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, was a briefing to a parliamentary committee on December 19, 2017. The briefing by Bajwa included important national security issues, ties with India, the outcome of his foreign visits and the Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries against terrorism. The army chief also said the army would back the government’s initiatives to improve ties with India. Commenting on Hafiz Saeed, Bajwa said that like any other Pakistani, he was free to take up politics.
Former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, who had banned LeT in 2002 said, “I’m the biggest supporter of Lashkar-e-Taiba and I know the LeT and JuD people like me… because have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir. This is the biggest force and they have been declared terrorists by India and the US jointly," Musharraf said.
The Pakistani army realizes that while there is disillusionment with democratic forces, any sort of military takeover may not be well taken by Pakistanis.
Shahbaz is known for his stellar governance record in Punjab, and is a trusted face with the voters in a PML-N vs. PPP contest. Nawaz mentioned this during the meeting with senior leaders. Shahbaz has been able to not just bring in some big ticket infrastructural projects, but has also been successful in implementing welfare schemes as well as citizen friendly initiatives.
Also, Shahbaz has close ties with several key countries, including China, GCC countries and Turkey. China has repeatedly praised Shahbaz Sharif for his administrative skills. With some dexterity, he may also be able to do some damage control in the context of ties with the US, which have witnessed a steep downturn. Earlier, as Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz has tried to play a positive role in Indo-Pak peace efforts.
Nawaz Sharif has made the correct decision. At this point of time, Shahbaz Sharif is the best bet for the PML-N as well as for Pakistan. However, the PML-N leader would do well to become more consultative, and also address some of the genuine misgivings of party. Shahbaz Sharif too will have to be more democratic in his functioning. While even his rivals confess that Sharif is a sound administrator, his style of functioning has, on occasion, been dubbed as abrasive.
(The author is a policy analyst with Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)