Pakistani politics in the past two months has been through significant churning, the latest development was the re-election of former PM Nawaz Sharif once again as PML-N Chief on October 3, 2017 with Pakistan Parliament passing Election Bill 2017 which permits politicians disqualified from holding public office to lead a political party (there was significant opposition to the bill from opposition parties). The bill was signed by President Mamnoon Hussain. Political outfits like the Pakistan Awam Tehreek have challenged this bill in Lahore High Court, while Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and other outfits are likely to challenge the bill in the Supreme Court. While it remains to be seen as to whether Sharif will face any further hurdles or not, it is also important to analyze some of the key outcomes of the recent bye election, and some clear takeaways from it.
The margin of victory of the by-election, held on September 17, 2017, was not as high as that of the previous time. While Kulsoom Nawaz secured 61,254 votes, Yasmin Rashid of the Pakistan Tehreek E Insaaf (PTI) secured an impressive 47,066 votes. Yasmin Rashid reduced the gap to 14,000, after having lost the 2013 election to Nawaz Sharif by 40,000 votes. A total of 40 contestants participated in the by-election, of which the main contenders were the PML-N’s Kulsoom Nawaz, the PTI’s Yasmin Rashid, and the Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) Faisal Mir.
Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, who was in charge of the campaign as her mother was undergoing cancer treatment in London, expressed her satisfaction with the results, in that they clearly revealed the faith of the public in Nawaz Sharif, and that the people had rejected the Supreme Court’s decision. Maryam Nawaz also had a subtle dig at the Pakistan Army: “Today, you have not only fought against those who are visible in the battlefield, but also against those who are invisible.” She also accused the army of using highhandedness to pressurize PML-N workers: “Our party men were taken into custody to influence the outcome of the election. But by the grace of God we won despite all the odds.”
The PTI claimed a moral victory, saying that the reduced margin clearly showed that the PML-N had lost ground, and that there was no real sympathy for Nawaz Sharif, as the corruption charges had damaged both the PML-N and the Sharif family. PTI leader Imran Khan said that Yasmin Rashid had put up a sterling fight even though government machinery (Provincial and Federal) had backed Sharif.
A number of analysts such as Zahid Hussain have expressed their surprise at the low victory margin of Kulsoom Nawaz, in spite of the PTI candidate Yasmin Rashid not being a strong candidate. Hussain argued that the low turn-out during the election did not augur well for the PML-N.
A few things need to be considered carefully. It remains to be seen how others in the PML-N react to the rise of Maryam Nawaz, including Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Nawaz Sharif and Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab and Hamza Shahbaz, son of Shahbaz Sharif. There are serious rifts within the family. Firstly, Nawaz Sharif appointed another leader, Pervaiz Malik, as the campaign manager for the election, much to the chagrin of Hamza Shahbaz, who was already peeved at not being appointed CM of Punjab.
With the PTI not being able to emerge as a force, it has been argued that the establishment is looking for other options given their strained relations with the PML-N, especially Nawaz Sharif.
Many have argued that one of the reasons Shahbaz Sharif was not appointed PM after the removal of Nawaz Sharif was that Hamza Shahbaz would have to be appointed CM of Punjab. Zahid Hussain has in fact attributed the mediocre performance of the PML-N to the fissures within the Sharif family, especially the rivalry between Hamza Shahbaz and Maryam Nawaz. Maryam Nawaz, on her part, has denied any rifts within the Sharif family. In August 2017, she had tweeted a picture of Hamza and Malik Parvez, stating that: “Those hoping for a rift between Sharif family will Insha’Allah bite the dust. Here are Hamza & Malik Parvez chairing a meeting on NA-120.”
Here it would be important to point out that it is not just Hamza Shahbaz, but other leaders too — both old and young — who will not easily accept Maryam Nawaz’s rise. Railway Minister Saad Rafique stated: “Maryam has been working hard, however, it is not the right time to compare her to Benazir Bhutto. She needs to be cautious when speaking [publicly].” Those considered close to the military are wary of her rise too, since she has pulled no punches and attacked the Pakistan army.
Senior PML-N leader and former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar stated: “Unnecessary confrontation with the Army can weaken our position, which is not suitable.” Nisar has also expressed the view that Maryam is not quite ready to don the mantle of the leadership within the PML-N: “Maryam Nawaz should understand and partake in practical politics. Only then can she be considered a leader.”
It remains to be seen how the military will respond to the by-election result. In the past, the army has lent its support to the PTI. During the by-election, Yasmin Rashidone of the PTI leaders, did not forget to thank the military for the role it played in ensuring a free and fair election: “I am thankful to the media and military for the role they played. The presence of the army ensured that voters were able to cast their votes peacefully and without any worries.” With the PTI unable to emerge as a force, it has been argued that the establishment is looking for other options given their strained relations with the PML-N, especially Nawaz Sharif.
Political outfits supported by Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a front for the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, remain a concern. Kunwar Khuldune Shahid has pointed out that the candidate for the Milli Muslim League (MML), which is also a front for the JuD, won well over 5,800 votes in the by-election, nearly 4 times that of those won by the PPP candidate.
It remains to be seen whether Maryam Nawaz’s rise in the PML-N will be smooth. While there is sympathy with pro-democracy forces, there is also discomfort with dynastic politics. Maryam Nawaz will thus have to play her cards in an astute manner and ensure that her rise does not cause resentment. Currently the PML-N is the most dominant force with its control over Punjab, but it cannot afford to be complacent, especially after seeing a reduced margin in the by-election.
How the army plays its cards in the coming months is also important. From Pakistani PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s UN speech, it is evident that the army is running the show as far as foreign policy is concerned, especially regarding its ties with India. What is quite clear is that the army will prop up anti-PML-N forces, especially in the crucial province of Punjab.