The Sharif Family saga began when Mian Nawaz Sharif was disqualified as an MNA, and thus as Prime Minister. Previously a sort of sub-story of the Nawaz Sharif Story, it assumed centre-stage. Though Mian Nawaz himself did not look it, he is 68 on his next birthday, in December. He was obviously not contemplating the succession to his political legacy, though his coronary bypass led to the beginning of speculation on this issue. However, his ouster from office has meant that the question has become urgent. Though it seems that familial ties have prevented any public feuding, his brother Mian Shehbaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have been pushed forward as potential successors. Mian Nawaz was expected to choose one at the London meeting. By confirming Mian Shehbaz as the party candidate for PM at the next election, he answered the most urgent question, which needed an answer by election time. However, there was no final answer on who would inherit the legacy.

Before assessing their chances, it must be seen just what the legacy comprises. At its most basic level, it consists of those who oppose the PPP, and comprises an electoral platform for them. Those who oppose the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf are also in its fold. It has also included the religious right. In other words, Mian Nawaz is the political heir of Ziaul Haq, who in turn created a civilian coalition in addition to the military mechanism by which he ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Another way of looking at the PML(N) and the PPP is as two groups of opportunists, who rely on different support bases. Candidates, especially in rural areas, seem free of party constraints, apparently because their core support group will back them anyhow. The party vote is added on to this to make a final tally. Therefore, Mian Nawaz does command votes of those who will back ‘electables’ so long as he follows their agenda, whether in government or in opposition.

Is this votebank transferable? Bhutto set up a new standard by making the votebank of the Left transferable to an heir. Indeed, it was not he who did the transferring so much as the heir who came forward. Indeed, the first heir was his widow, and it was under her tutelage that his daughter emerged. The PPP seems to be the trendsetter, for it pioneered the arrangement whereby the heir was not head of government, and even the President was not the heir, but his parent. The hereditary nature of the PPP leadership was something that its opponents used as a talking point, and there is a resistance that both Mian Shehbaz and Maryam will have to face.

Another issue that Maryam alone will have to face is that of a woman being head of government. This issue was also raised for Benazir Bhutto when she became Prime Minister, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman in particular came in for a lot of flack because of this, because his late father, Mufti Mahmud, had justified his support of Ayub Khan in the 1964 presidential election on the ground that his opponent, Fatima Jinnah, was a woman. The question cannot be raised by the PPP, nor openly by the PTI, but it can be left to fester among the PML(N)’s own supporters.

It is worth noting that the fall of Mian Nawaz has coincided with the emergence of new sectarian parties. The Milli Muslim League and the Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah Movement, though not registered (with the latter having its application for registration rejected), put up candidates. These parties are sectarian in nature, one drawing support from Brelvis, and the other from the Ahle Hadith. Mian Nawaz, and by extension Maryam, might belong to the Brelvi sect, and thus be opposed to the Ahle Hadith, but the PML(N) reaction would be a shift rightwards. Those who might be attracted to these religious parties would be the same voters most likely to be swayed by the woman’s leadership argument. Some might opine that woman’s leadership has been expressly forbidden, but it would take an act of mental calisthenics to accept elections as legal, but baulk at a woman’s leadership.

There is also the issue of whether Maryam will be available at all. She runs the risk of disqualification, even jail, in the NAB references which have also been filed against her father. At least for the time being, Mian Shehbaz is not at risk, though NAB has decided to appeal the Lahore High Court’s 2014 quashing of the Hudaibya Paper Mills reference, in which Mian Shehbaz was an accused.

Maryam’s claim to The New York Times that the family wanted her to take over the leadership of the party has been hotly denied, but mainly because Mian Nawaz will not tolerate discussions of the succession, which also resulted in the London meeting not deciding this issue. His sons, who would be his natural political heirs, have withdrawn themselves by remaining in the UK. Maryam is the child who has returned from exile, and established herself as Mian Nawaz’s political heir.

One of the problems of the dynasticism inherent in making Mian Shehbaz Punjab Chief Minister, Begum Kulsoom the replacement for Mian Nawaz in NA 120 and allowing Maryam so much prominence, is that the dynamics of the succession reflects internal family politics. This is the reason for the attention paid to Begum Kulsoom’s illness, which is not just that of a party chief’s wife, but of a potential party head. This is redoubled for the Sharifs, because Mian Nawaz based part of his appeal on being the scion of a typical middle-class family from Gowalmandi, which had not lost touch with its roots just because it had grown rich. It is a truism that while brothers will present a united front, first cousins might not. This may well be the dynamic at work.

The problem is magnified by the fact that an election is just around the corner. Mian Nawaz may be out of contention for any office in this election cycle, in which case the voter might well like to know what he is voting for. As the NA-120 by-election showed, the PPP is probably not going to be competitive in Punjab, leaving the PTI as the main alternative to the PML(N). The PTI is going to be clear that a vote for it means a vote for Imran Khan as PM. The PML(N) had the advantage of putting forward Mian Nawaz, who has held office since 1981, and has been PM three times since 1990. Maryam does not compare in experience, having none; Mian Shehbaz at least has been thrice Punjab CM.

One advantage that the Sharifs have is that the rightists do not have any option apart from the PML(N). If Mian Shehbaz was to provide that option, it is possible he might wing it. However, there is the PML(Q) still in the wings. The position is moving towards that of the post-Ayub elections, when the rightist vote was split among the religious vote and various PML factions, while the leftist vote went to the PPP in the West Wing and the Awami League in the East. The country split. Now the central question is whether the PPP-PTI vote split will break the country, or whether it is more like the PPP-NAP split of 1970.

As the PML(N), even in its pre-1993 avatars, has always been an electoral party, its real test will come in the next polls, in whether it has enough chance of election to remain united and attract ‘electables’. That will determine whether Mian Nawaz has to make way, and for whom. Elections may well be unforgiving, but that is the sword the Sharifs have so far lived by.

Mian Nawaz may be out of contention for any office in this election cycle, in which case the voter might well like to know what he is voting for.