Pakistan’s dynastic politics and the PML-N’s Sharif family

As in other parts of South Asia, dynastic politics is an integral feature of Pakistan’s politics. Both the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) and the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) are essentially family-run political parties. While the PPP has been dominated by the Bhutto family, the PML-N has been dominated by the Sharif family.

Resentment against family domination in PML-N

In the recent past, there has been resentment against the rise of both Maryam Nawaz Sharif (daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and Hamza Shehbaz, son of Shehbaz Sharif (PML-N party chief and younger brother of Nawaz Sharif).

The latest resignation from PML-N was that of Zaeem Qadri, once a confidante of Shehbaz Sharif, who was denied a seat for the NA-133 (an electoral constituency in Pakistan). Qadri used some harsh words for Hamza Shahbaz, saying ‘Hear Hamza Shahbaz! Lahore is neither your, nor your father’s property.’ Qadri also stated, that one of the reasons he did not get the ticket was that he did not possess adequate resources.

In the run up to the elections, internal dynamics of the PML-N, as well as the role of the Pakistan military, will be crucial (it has been lending tacit support to the opposition, to weaken the PML-N, especially in the party’s citadel of Punjab).

Dynastic politics and differences within the Sharif family

If one were to look at the resentment against Maryam Nawaz, only last year, Chaudhry Nisar, former Interior Minister, who does not share particularly cordial relations with the Sharifs, said that it is too premature to compare Maryam Nawaz with Benazir Bhutto. Said Nisar in an interview with Geo TV:

Comparing Maryam Nawaz to Benazir Bhutto is wrong […] Maryam Nawaz should understand and partake in practical politics. Only then can she be considered a leader.

Another minister, Saad Rafique, too had stated that Maryam Nawaz should be ‘cautious while addressing public meetings.’

Rivalry between Hamza Shehbaz and Maryam Nawaz

It has been argued that one of the main reasons for the strained relationship between Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif was the rivalry between their children. After Nawaz was removed from Prime Ministership in July 2017, one of the reasons why Shahbaz (now the PM candidate) was not immediately appointed interim Prime Minister, as well as President of the PML-N, was that there was a clamor for Hamza Shahbaz as Chief Minister of Punjab and Nawaz’s family was not comfortable with an arrangement where both father and son would be powerful. Later on, Nawaz appointed Pervez Malik, instead of Hamza Shehbaz, as campaigner in charge for NA-120, which was fought by his wife Kulsoom Nawaz.

Military’s behind the scenes manuevres and defections

In recent months, the Pakistan army has been trying to engineer a number of defections from the PML-N to PTI, and even though the military shares a comfortable relationship with Shehbaz, as compared to Nawaz, it is believed that now they would be most comfortable with Imran Khan as PM. There have also been reports of the military not just arm twisting political leaders of the PML-N, but censoring the media as well. Whether the latest resignation was prompted by the military is in the realm of speculation of course.

The Army and Nawaz’ reaction to the resignation of Qadri

Interestingly, Qadri’s resignation may be welcomed not just by the military, since it would have come across as a setback to the PML-N, which is considered the dominant force in Punjab. In his heart of hearts, Shahbaz’ brother Nawaz too may not mind this, since it will not only clip Hamza’s wings but also weaken Shahbaz’ position to some extent. During his press conference, Qadri made a mention of Nawaz Sharif, saying that the Former PM had told Qadri that many within the PML-N were not happy with his presence in the party.

While the two brothers share a very strong rapport, in spite of temperamental differences in the past year, there has been a degree of friction. After Nawaz’ remarks on the Mumbai attacks, where he blamed Pakistan for delaying the trial of the accused, Shahbaz had to intervene, and apparently told Nawaz not to talk to the press without consulting Shehbaz. In an interview to the Dawn newspaper, Nawaz had said:

Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me […] Why can’t we complete the trial?

In spite of the differences within the PML-N, and some tensions between both brothers, there is a strong realization that the main crowd puller for the PML-N still remains Nawaz Sharif, and with the elder Sharif being in London due to his wife’s ill health (she has been on ventilator since June 14 2018) it is unlikely that he will be able to spearhead the campaign.

On the whole, defections like Qadri’s are not likely to have much of an impact on the prospects of the PML-N, given Nawaz’ charisma and goodwill, along with the fact that he is looked at as an individual who has taken on the army, and Shahbaz Sharif’s performance as Chief Minister. What will really be crucial is the success of the Pakistan military’s back door machinations, and to what extent will it go all out to back PTI Chief Imran Khan, who himself has been in the eye of a storm after a book written by his former wife and senior journalist, Reham Khan, has made some serious accusations against him, and could dent his prospects amongst certain sections.

Conclusion

It is in Pakistan’s interest that the 2019 election verdict results in the strengthening of the democratic set up. Apart from a dire need for change in the military’s mindset, political parties in Pakistan (like in other South Asian countries) too need to get their house in order and move beyond being family concerns. It is also important to have greater intraparty democracy.

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