LAHORE - Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif will take over as PML-N chief today at a time when the party is facing several challenges because of the policies of his elder brother – disqualified prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. And on his performance will depend the future of the party – and his own.
He will be able to become the prime minister only if the PML-N got majority seats in the next election, surmounting all obstacles.
As of now, the party is relentlessly attacking the judiciary because of its verdicts, and is critical of the army – to use a soft word for the approach. It also subjects the National Accountability Bureau to scathing criticism owing to the inquiries, investigations and references the party leaders are facing.
Parties like the PTI and the PPP are acting like the allies of the two institutions, because of which the PML-N’s difficulties multiply and it has to fight on many fronts at the same time.
After being designated as party head, Shehbaz Sharif is expected to deliver a policy speech that will indicate his future course of action.
There are two possibilities: Adhering to the narrative of his elder brother, or adopting a different course to make the party acceptable to the two institutions the three-time prime minister has been taking on for long.
This will be a very difficult decision for Shehbaz Sharif to make, especially because his brother will still be the real leader and calling the shots from behind the scenes. It will be a tight rope walk for him. If he goes by the first approach, which attracts voters but antagonizes state institutions, there won’t be any change in the situation and the party’s all rival forces would like to see the PML-N out of power as a result of the next election. There are many people who are convinced that the very holding of election will become doubtful if the rival forces concluded that the victory will go to the PML-N.
The ongoing accountability process may force some party leaders to change loyalties. The possibility of the fence-sitters parting ways with the party in a difficult situation cannot be ruled out.
But if the Punjab chief minister decided to soften his approach – which senior party leaders want him to do to bring down the political temperature - critics would be justified in saying that the policy being followed by Mian Nawaz Sharif was wrong.
So, it’s a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” kind of situation.
Normalisation of ties with the judiciary in the prevailing situation will be a Herculean task. The incumbent chief justice and his two successors are intolerable for the PML-N because of their verdict in the Panama Papers case and tension will continue to dominate the political scene even if the PML-N won the next election.
Army too will find it difficult to tolerate the PML-N in power as a result of the next election. Some say that powers that be will try to break the financial muscle of the Sharifs to reduce them to their limits and make it difficult for them to dominate the political scene just because of money.
Shehbaz Sharif has “inherited a much different National Accountability Bureau. When Nawaz Sharif was in power, Qamar Zaman Chaudhry was heading the organization and he created no problem for the government. In fact the little he was doing on this front also came to an end when Mr Sharif criticized the NAB in public.
But the NAB is very active after Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal took over as its chairman. Being a former judge of the Supreme Court, he knows how to implement the NAB law. There are apprehensions that even Shehbaz Sharif may have to face some cases in the near future. People arrested by the NAB may make some statements that implicate the chief minister.
Although the chief minister claims his hands are clean, his political future will remain uncertain unless he gets a clean chit from the NAB.
In such a situation defeating the PTI and the PPP in the next election will need a lot of effort and planning. And since the PPP and PTI are in power in two provinces, it will not be easy for the PML-N to show its presence there.
Interestingly, the equation between the prime minister and the Punjab chief minister will change after the latter’s aggrandizement to the party’s top office. In a way, as party head Shehbaz will be the prime minister’s boss.