Will Nawaz Sharif return?

One thing is certain in Nawaz Sharif's absence, PML-N led by Maryam, perhaps, would not be able to do well in any polls in near future

Mazhar Abbas
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looks out of the window of his plane after attending a ceremony to inaugurate the M9 motorway between Karachi and Hyderabad, Pakistan in February 3, 2017. — Reuters/File
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looks out of the window of his plane after attending a ceremony to inaugurate the M9 motorway between Karachi and Hyderabad, Pakistan in February 3, 2017. — Reuters/File 

It’s been three and half years since the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been in London, where he himself went or was sent for ‘medical treatment’ during the government of his arch-rival former premier, Imran Khan — a decision the latter regrets to this day.

Though uncertainty still prevails whether general elections will be held in Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) or the whole country for that matter, Mian sahib is yet to make up his mind about his return to Pakistan even though his party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) led coalition government headed by his brother Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is in power.

One of the possible reasons for his indecisiveness seems to be a legal hitch over the fate of his appeal against his lifetime disqualification and subsequent conviction.

Instead, he has sent his charismatic daughter Maryam Nawaz whom many believe would carry Sharif’s political legacy but, since her return, she is facing a stiff challenge from both within the PML-N and firebrand opponent Imran Khan.

Before coming to Pakistan from London after three months she was appointed by Mian sahib as senior vice-president as well as chief organiser, a move which was not welcomed by some party veterans as some of them publicly expressed their reservations.

At a time when PML-N is facing the daunting challenge of regaining its past glory, it seems to be lacking the confidence of going into early elections despite her hectic campaign to reorganise the party by holding party workers' conventions.

Some party veterans strongly believed that the PML-N emerged as the biggest loser in the post-no-confidence motion against former premier Khan and blamed all those within the party who decided to form the government instead of going into fresh elections. In the last 10 months, the PML-N, which was on the top by winning most of the by-elections in Punjab in 2021, is now on the decline. They lost most of the by-poll last year and most of the surveys predict Khan’s PTI victory.

According to those party leaders who were against the formation of the PML-N government, it is now or never for Nawaz Sharif as the party is in complete disarray and Maryam may not be able to bring the dissidents around. Simply put, the ball is now in his court. They were of the view that the party may go further down if he continues to run the party from London instead of returning — irrespective of the outcome of his appeal.

The government also committed the blunder of trying to oust former chief minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi. They faced humiliation twice. First during a vote of no-confidence and second in a vote of confidence. The PML-N in the process lost 15 out of 20 by-elections on MPA seats as the party cadre rejected the candidates as ‘lotas.’

Though none of the dissenting voices whether it is former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former finance minister Miftah Ismail, former KP chief minister Sardar Mehtab Abbasi or senior leader Khawaja Saad Rafiq had left PML-N or faced even show-cause it clearly showed that all is not well in the party.

At a time when the government of PM Shehbaz is facing a ‘mission impossible’ to recover Pakistan from economic meltdown, elections in the Punjab Assembly, if held within 90-days would be by far the biggest challenge for Sharifs since the days of late Pervez Musharraf.

A million-dollar question is why Mian sahib is still undecided about his return. Has he not got a ‘green signal’ about the chances of getting cleared in cases of disqualification for life and conviction? And if so, is he about to take the unpleasant but undeclared decision to ‘quit’ and see how Maraym carries his legacy? Some pro-Maryam leaders within the party also concede that even if she has to lead the party it is important for Mian sahib to return and ensure the party performs well in the next general elections in Punjab or in the country.

It appears that the three-time premier still has apprehension about the possible political outcome of his appeal and is waiting for a legal opinion from his team which is still in doubt about the chances of success.

It looks as if Nawaz is not very confident about getting ‘relief’ from the superior judiciary regarding his lifetime disqualification and subsequent conviction and would not like to put himself in trouble upon return. With Khan increasing pressure to ensure elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa before the general elections in the rest of the country, the Lahore High Court (LHC) decision comes as a boost to PTI's struggle. Nawaz is watching changing political developments in Pakistan from London.

Nawaz, who was the blue-eyed boy of late General Zia ul Haq's administration, never had a cordial relationship with the powerful establishment in his long political career of nearly 40 years. He was the only prime minister in the country who nominated most of the army chiefs and also has a record of not giving extensions to any of them. He had an ‘interesting’ relationship with most of the army chiefs whether it was General Aslam Baig, Gen Asif Nawaz, Gen Waheed Kakar, Gen Jehangir Karamat, Gen Pervez Musharraf, General Raheel Sharif or Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The PML-N supremo also played a decisive role in the appointment of the new army chief Gen Asim Munir but was still reluctant to return despite the party's ‘make or break’ position. Party leaders say he will return once a doctor gives him NOC (no objection certificate) to travel. One wonders which NOC he is awaiting and from which doctor, the one in London or the one in Rawalpindi.

One thing is certain in Nawaz's absence, the party led by Maryam, perhaps, would not be able to do well in any elections in the near future and the ultimate blame would go to Mian sahib himself. So, if the court and Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) ordered elections in Punjab and KP in April, will Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and PML-N be in a position to contest the polls? The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), technically not part of PDM, has decided to contest polls in Punjab and KP. If that happens it could lead to a split in the coalition government. It's a no-win situation for PDM and PML-N — the benefit of which would clearly go to PTI's favour despite its shortcomings.

The writer is a columnist and analyst at Geo News, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO