Sharif at a dead end?


And fate of the heir apparent



Today is the day of reckoning in Lahore. Ordinarily too much cannot be read in results of by-elections. However, the timing of the NA-120 contest has attached a special significance to it.

This is the traditional Sharif constituency of Lahore; in the same manner that Lyaari in Karachi, in the heyday of the party, was PPP’s home constituency. The seat was vacated after Nawaz Sharif ceased to be an MNA (Member National Assembly), after being convicted in the Panamagate case on 28 July.

Sharif’s ailing spouse Kalsoom Nawaz is contesting the by-election, but while she is being treated for cancer her daughter Maryam Nawaz is spearheading the campaign in her absence. The PML-N is going to face tough competition from PTI’s candidate Yasmin Rashid who bagged 52,000 votes when she lost to Sharif in 2013 elections. 

Nonetheless this election, from a PML-N point of view, is more about the political future of the ‘first daughter’, who is singlehandedly spearheading her mother’s campaign. It is no coincidence that her cousin and Shahbaz Sharif’s progeny Hamza Shahbaz has been made to be absent from NA-120 throughout the campaign. He is conveniently in London ostensibly attending to his ailing mother. 

The NA-120 result will determine who will assume the mantle of the senior Sharif? Certainly the message is loud and clear that it is going to be Maryam.

If Maryam is able to bag a record number of votes with a higher turnout than the 2013 elections it will be interpreted as her personal victory. Inversely, a defeat at the hands of the PTI candidate will be a big setback not only for her but for the Sharif family as well.

This outcome is, however, unlikely. Apart from being a traditional Sharif constituency the PML-N has an additional advantage of being the incumbent. 

Unlike general elections, there is no caretaker government in place, overseeing to provide a transparent level playing field. In this scenario it is very difficult to ensure that the ruling party’s candidate does not get any tail winds. 

That is why Yasmin Rashid and other competing candidates’ complaints have fallen on deaf ears. In fact all candidates are flouting the so-called code of ethics of the ECP (Election Commission of Pakistan) with impunity. 

The PTI chief last Thursday held a rally from Charing Cross on the Mall to Data Durbar traversing through NA120. The same day, a stone’s throw from Charing Cross Maryam addressed a gathering at Aiwan-e-Iqbal with PML-N stalwarts Pervez Rashid, Maryum Aurangzeb and Danyal Aziz in tow. Roughly at the same time the PPP had its show of strength nearby by holding a rally at Hameed Nizami (Temple) Road. 

Interestingly the PPP, although not expecting to win in NA-120, is claiming that its candidate Faisal Mir will bag a decent number of votes, thus symbolically demonstrating that there is somewhat of a revival of the party in Lahore. 

The city at one time was the citadel of its founder Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. But since then it has been downhill for the party. In the 2013 elections it was routed in Lahore like the rest of the Punjab. 

There have been some half-hearted attempts to revive the sagging fortunes of the party in the province. Co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto, during their not too frequent sojourns to Bilawal house Lahore, have somewhat reorganised the party by reshuffling the top slots. 

It is also banking on the fact that Sharif is somewhat tainted after the outcome of the Panama verdict. Just two days before the by-election the apex court upheld its 28 July verdict, unanimously rejected the Sharif family’s review petitions. Thus, legally, sealing their fate.

This might cost votes for Kalsoom Nawaz. The incarcerated Jamaatud Dawwa chief Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League is doing aggressive door-to-door campaigning in the constituency. This right-wing entity could possibly cut into the vote bank of the PML-N.

The family has to face numerous NAB references filed against them. They will be now pursued with a new vigour not only by the monitoring SC judge but by the opposition as well. 

The PTI, buttressed by lone wolf Sheikh Rashid’s concerted efforts, has succeeded in re-opening the decades old Hudabiya Paper Mills money-laundering case. The real purpose is to indirectly target Shahbaz Sharif, who so far has escaped the gauntlet.

If these endeavors bear fruit, the PML-N will be bereft of leadership of the two Sharif brothers. The PTI perhaps reckon that without the Sharifs the PML-N will be a headless chicken. 

In that case Kalsoom Nawaz could have been the likely choice. But she is presently dealing with serious health issues. 

However, events on the ground might pan out quite differently. Unlike his elder brother, Shahbaz Sharif is acceptable to the ubiquitous establishment. In fact, if there is a kernel of truth in the ‘minus one’ formula he is ‘the Manchurian Candidate.’ 

In this context even if Maryam wins the NA-120 contest with flying colours, it is unlikely that she will be able to succeed her father in the near future. Legally speaking she and her husband are not entirely out of the woods. Perhaps she should test the waters by simply contesting the next general elections from the same constituency. 

In this sense it is a make-or-break by-election for the PTI as well. Yasmin Rashid, owing to her previous record, is an ideal PTI candidate to contest from the constituency. 

If she wins, the Khan would have convincingly demonstrated that electorally the PML-N star is on the wane. In case of a defeat the PTI will brazenly repeat its mantra that there was massive rigging. They will further contend –with some justification — that pre-election rigging by the Punjab government had already sealed their fate.

Nawaz Sharif, ensconced in his London flat, will be watching the political events unfolding with some trepidation. After Musharraf ousted him in 1999, eventually sending him into exile, he maneuvered not only a comeback but won Punjab in 2008 elections and subsequently the 2013 general elections to become third time prime minister. 

Now, he is being advised again to stay away from Pakistan and instead empower his brother and to resist the temptation for implicitly blaming the army for his ouster. 

Will history repeat itself, enabling him to become prime minister for the fourth time? He has confided with his close friends that he has neither the desire nor the gumption to aim for the top slot again.

But being a fighter it is unlikely that he will quietly bide his time in London. On the other hand a changed political matrix precludes his comeback any time soon. 

In fact it might never happen, as there is no military dictator or usurper to fight. Unlike the past neither the PPP nor the PTI are sympathetic to his cause. 

The best course for Sharif is to empower his party like he did by making the perfect choice to succeed him as prime minister. But he should desist from the temptation of blaming everyone but himself for his untimely ouster.