The litmus test

2017-09-18T03:21:29+05:00 Zahaid Rehman

The voting for the vacant NA-120 seat in Lahore is one that has captivated the nation; for obvious reasons of course. The seat of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now being contested for between Kulsoom Nawaz and Dr Yasmin Rashid – who managed to get a significant number of votes while opposing Mr Sharif – is naturally going to be of interest in the wake of the Panama decision. With a large turnout reported early on September 17, it can be safely assumed that the result will be much anticipated. However, for PTI, are Dr Yasmin Rashid’s diligent efforts both before and during the election campaign and the Panama case’s verdict enough for the party to take away a cherished seat in the heart of the PML-N’s centre of power?

The opposing party’s workers would answer with a resounding no. For the PML-N, the seat has its obvious practical utility, but holds much more symbolic importance. The party cannot really afford to lose a seat held by the former PM Nawaz Sharif at this crucial time, with a decision against their leader and the party’s position in the next elections under question. And let’s not forget that propping up Kulsoom Nawaz as its candidate means that PML-N is using one of its more popular names – although arguably not as big a household name as Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Mr Nawaz Sharif’s wife is popular on her own account within PML-N workers, not just as the first lady, but as the woman who braved the party’s purge after Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in 1997. Losing this by-election then, does not seem like a possibility, as most PML-N workers would tell you.

Add Maryam Nawaz – the heir apparent – spearheading campaigning efforts and you have a seemingly unbeatable combination. While Maryam Nawaz’s campaign efforts look to be effective, one can’t really state for certain that this is the case in a country like Pakistan, where pre-election polls, exit polls and other reliable forms of data are unavailable. We can only conjecture based on the numbers of the participants at various rallies and other electioneering events, and they do indicate that the Panama verdict did not significantly dent the Sharif family’s image, at the very least in NA-120. The final results will of course determine whether this is truly the case, but there are already very loud whispers among detractors who do not believe in this winning recipe – many have reportedly questioned the choice of Maryam Nawaz as campaign manager.

With the PML-N’s internal structure essentially autocratic, it is obvious that most of these whispers do not reach the ears of the party’s leader, Mr Nawaz Sharif. But then, some do. Chief among the dissenters is Chaudhry Nisar, one of the more senior members of the party, who has chagrined Sharif’s “new advisors” for misleading him during the Panama crisis and beyond. His thinly veiled criticism and refusal to join the new cabinet makes it obvious that he is not a fan of the newest members of the PML-N leadership.

Not only this, but there are some within and without the party that see Maryam Nawaz’s ascension as a direct reason for all of PML-N’s misfortune ever since the issue of Dawn leaks came to fore. This is unfair and unwarranted, but perceptions matter, and dispelling such notions without turning the party’s luck around might not be possible.

There are also those who believe that Maryam Nawaz’s decision to surround herself with these “new advisors” (not to mention that she is one of them herself) is an additional reason for members of the old guard to not take to her as they have done with her father. To be fair, beyond Talal Chaudhry, Daniyal Aziz and others, she has elicited the support of senior leaders such as Pervaiz Rashid as well, which should allay some of the misgivings of those that agree with Nisar. But then, keeping everyone happy is not always possible at the outset.

All of this, coupled with Maryam Nawaz’s dynastic role as the next leader of the party implies that the election for NA-120 may have Kulsoom Nawaz’s name in the candidate’s slot, but is actually a test for Maryam Nawaz. Her victory would by no means win over estranged leaders such as Nisar immediately, but a loss would have disastrous consequences for her political career before it officially began.

If the PML-N does emerge victorious as predicted, then the next step for Nawaz Sharif’s heir would be to consolidate power immediately. Reach out to the leaders that feel left out or unheard, and make sure that they are brought back into the fold. As ever, beyond the usual loyalists, there are many candidates that will be shifting from party to party before the next elections for the best tickets. PML-N needs to make sure that the desertions are kept to a minimum and this can only be guaranteed if all the senior leaders are on the same page. Maryam Nawaz needs to bridge the gap here, considering her important role in the long run. Factions within the party will not benefit the party in any way.

Maryam Nawaz’s dynastic role as the next leader of the party implies that the election for NA-120 may have Kulsoom Nawaz’s name in the candidate’s slot, but is actually a test for Maryam Nawaz.

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