Will an unforgiving Punjab abort the PML-N?
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in a verdict against Nawaz Sharif, has handed down a prison sentence of ten years. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, was also sentenced to seven years in prison. For many, the decision was not unexpected as Sharif and his daughter have openly targeted various state institutions including the judiciary for pursuing corruption cases against them.
The question which requires attention now is this: what will become of the PML-N after this verdict? Moreover, with Sharif and Maryam continuing their course of targeting various state institutions, is it likely that the party will be further isolated with Shahbaz losing any hope of coming to power at the federal level?
While Shahbaz may like to run a vigorous campaign to lead his party in Punjab and elsewhere, it’s the setback, arising from Nawaz and Maryam’s politics which is only isolating his chances of forming a government at the federal level.
The verdict confirms two things just weeks before the next general elections. One, the party has been weakened to an extent that chances of it coming to power from here, seem remote. Interestingly, after the verdict against Sharif, there was no major protest against the decision. Lahore which is considered the electoral stronghold of the PML-N hardly saw any candidates or supporters coming out in streets in big numbers to protest against the decision. The streets of the rest of Punjab, in general, remained quiet. On the other hand, the press conference of Shahbaz Sharif which he did after the NAB verdict, said nothing against any state institution for their alleged role in pushing Nawaz out of the system. Shahbaz’s only emphasis during his speech primarily dealt with reminding the nation about Sharif’s national contributions and perhaps, pleading a case to assist him in saving what’s left of the party.
Second, as it has been argued that if Nawaz Sharif decides not to return to Pakistan and tones down his criticism of various state institutions, the pressure which is being built by the accountability drive may also die down. However, this doesn’t appear to be happening as much will depend on whether and when Sharif returns to Pakistan. Sharif, in a press conference, has already made it clear that he intends to return to Pakistan to face the punishment. “I promise that I will continue this struggle until Pakistanis are not free of the chains that they are kept in for speaking the truth,” said Nawaz in a statement. He also remarked that if the punishment for “demanding respect for the vote is jail and I am coming to face it.” If Sharif actually returns to Pakistan before the general elections, there is bound to be a lot of political instability. It’s unclear if the state is actually ready, or has prepared to deal with such an instability which may also end up in violence or a delay in the election. “People that expect Punjab to rise and protest for Nawaz Sharif may find themselves disappointed. As quickly as Punjab embraces a leader, it is equally quick to dump the leader,” said Hussain Nadeem.
However, it’s likely that an international pressure may also make an inroad to ensure that Sharif is not sentenced to prison. If that becomes a possibility, then the return of Nawaz is likely to see a long delay. In this entire situation, PML-N’s hopes are associated with winning the upcoming general elections if they are to make a case for Sharif’s return. However, the party’s leadership which is in Pakistan and is campaigning doesn’t see the active yet controversial participation of Sharif and Maryam helping them in winning incoming polls. Interestingly, the situation has only complicated over the last few weeks. While Shahbaz may like to run a vigorous campaign to lead his party in Punjab and elsewhere, it’s the setback, arising from Nawaz and Maryam’s politics which is only isolating his chances of forming a government at the federal level.
It is also possible, that Nawaz’s decision to come back to Pakistan may create more rifts inside the party’s ranks. A majority of senior members of the party have already shown distress over the entire situation which they allege is being worsened by the politics of the Nawaz faction. A number of candidates from the party have already returned their tickets and are opting to contest the election as independent candidates. The next one week is going to be very critical for Shahbaz who is trying very hard to keep the party together. As it appears, Nawaz who has not explicitly announced his date of return to Pakistan appears defiant and ready to push back against the pressure. In this context, he may return before the polling date as he believes that the entire accountability campaign is focused on making sure that his party doesn’t win the upcoming elections. If he is not allowed to become part of the system, political instability and chaos is perhaps the only way for him to remain relevant in active politics.