LAHORE  -  Hamza Shehbaz, who is the most important member of the Sharif family after his father and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif to lead the party in the absence of convicted and jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, held a news conference in Lahore on Friday to claim that since the PML-N had bagged more seats in the Punjab Assembly compared to other parties it has the right to form government in the country’s most populous province.

To substantiate his argument, he cited the example of 2013 election when then prime minister had given the PTI the same right in KP, although the PML-N and JUI-F were in a position to form a coalition there with the support of other legislators.

The young leader expressed reservations about the fairness of the July 25 elections, but made it clear that despite all this the PML-N will respect the PTI’s mandate (at the federal level). “We want democracy to flourish in Pakistan. Even if democracy is flawed, the only solution to it is more democracy and then more democracy. The PML-N has 64 seats in the National Assembly. We will play the role of the opposition.”

It was a very wise statement by a leader who has a long political future before him and whose father has thrice been the chief minister of Punjab and uncle thrice prime minister of the Islamic republic.

But a few hours later, the PML-N hosted a multi-party conference in Islamabad which was attended by a number of senior leaders of other parties, mostly the ones defeated by their rivals.

The MPC rejected the election results and called for re-election. A joint protest movement against rigging was also agreed upon. All participants said the legislators-elect should not take oath because of the alleged irregularities in elections. However, PML-N president, the host of the event, sought some time for consultations with the party colleagues on this important issue.

(Interestingly, the Jamaat-i-Islami, which had congratulated Imran Khan over his victory and also lauded his services for democracy, was also among the MPC participants and backers of the boycott call).

The same day PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari rejected the general election results but made it clear that the PPP would not boycott the newly-elected parliament for the sake of democratic order’s stability.

The question is whether parliament’s boycott, or the legislators-elect’s refusal to take oath, suits the PML-N interests? Will the party be able to form its government in Punjab if its legislators decide to stay out of assemblies? The answer is NO.

At a time when the party claims that it has the right to form its government in Punjab – and is also contacting other parties and independents to attain the simple majority, how will the boycott option help it achieve the target.

Such a course would be a political suicide and make it easier for the PTI to form its government in Punjab.

Everybody will agree that people contest elections to be part of a government, not sit on opposition benches. If they know that the PML-N is not forming the government, other parties and independents would have no option but to join hands with the PTI. In fact, this is the opportunity the PTI may be looking for.

The PML-N’s interests are quite different than those of the MMA parties, ANP or other ‘paper tigers’ who have nothing to lose. They have already hit what may be called ‘political sod’ and can’t go further down.

The PML-N can’t afford to stay out of parliament also because Mian Nawaz Sharif and Maryam are behind bars and a rival government may decide to tighten the screw on the father and the daughter in an attempt to teach their party a lesson.

As things stand, there is little possibility of the PML-N or other parties mounting enough pressure to force the rulers to go for re-election. The PML-N supporters can vote for the party but are not expected to go out on the streets for the sake of their leaders.

(The party supporters’ failure to protest when Nawaz Sharif was exiled to Saudi Arabia in December 2000, and their failure even to reach the Lahore airport on July 13 ‘to express solidarity’ with him when he was coming from London to court arrest, are sufficient for the PML-N leadership to understand that there are limits to which these loyalists can be trusted).

Those who think they can force the new PTI-led government to go for 1977-like re-election are grossly miscalculating the situation. They should not forget the role the army and the judiciary had played then and their inclinations and considerations at present.

It would not be wrong to assume that no serious preparations had been made by the hosts for the July 27 MPC in Islamabad.

The late Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, who hosted countless such conferences in his lifetime, used to say that all decisions are taken beforehand and the events are staged only to make those decisions public.

The very fact that Shehbaz Sharif had to seek more time for consultations with his party leaders on the most important issue of boycotting the parliament and keeping the legislators–elect away from the parliament house clearly showed that the idea was not discussed beforehand. Had this not been the case, the participants would have come up with a unanimous decision.

The Saudi ambassador’s meeting with Imran Khan and China’s statement after the Pakistan poll results should be enough for the PML-N experts in international relations that the opposition parties would have to reconcile with the new ground realities. Young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s line of action is more pragmatic in the prevailing situation.

 

 

ASHRAF MUMTAZ