A House Divided
By Zahid Hussain
There is some semblance of proactive governance and an institutionalised decision-making process under a supposedly stopgap prime minister — indeed, a pleasant change from the capricious ways of the ousted leader. The cabinet meets more frequently and so does the National Security Council, indicating a more inclusive approach. It is not just a matter of symbolism; it is also about a system-based regime that was starkly missing under Nawaz Sharif.
Surely Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has proved to be more than just a transient figurehead. However, notwithstanding his newfound dynamism, Abbasi knows that he owes his current position to Nawaz Sharif and he is just holding the post for the heir apparent. In deference to his ousted leader, he would not even move into Prime Minister House. Sharif’s shadow still looms large over Islamabad’s corridors of power despite his inglorious exit. Nevertheless, the new prime minster has created his own space and made his presence felt in spite of his modest ways and low profile.
But the situation remains highly tenuous as the former prime minister fights the second round of the legal battle to save himself from further humiliation. He and his entire family now face trial in an accountability court for a litany of corruption charges. Meanwhile, the widening cracks in the family and growing signs of dissidence in party ranks have made things increasingly untenable for the former prime minister and compounded the problems of the new government.
It was a most serious jolt for the ruling party, already reeling from the shock of Sharif’s disqualification, when the estranged former interior minister threw down the gauntlet. One of the most senior party leaders, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan last week launched a blistering attack on his erstwhile leader with whom he has had more than 30 years of association.
Surely the maverick PML-N leader who is known for his mercurial temperament may have some personal grievances, but his outburst was also a manifestation of some deeper fissures in party ranks somehow linked to the internal Sharif family feud. Not surprisingly, his main target has been Maryam who is at the center of the struggle within the family for succession.
Although Nisar has fallen out with the former prime minister, he has remained close to the younger Sharif brother, who is clearly unhappy at being ignored for the top leadership job. The cleavage seems to have widened with the growing perception of Nawaz Sharif putting his weight behind his ambitious daughter for the future leadership.
That may also have been a reason for the absence of the Punjab chief minister from the country for such a long period during the crucial election campaign for an ailing Kulsum Nawaz who is contesting on a Lahore National Assembly seat left vacant after her husband’s disqualification.
While Maryam is holding the fort at home, the other members of the family including Shahbaz Sharif and his son are out of the country. Surely, the former prime minister has been in London essentially to look after his ailing wife, but for the past week, Shahbaz Sharif has been running the provincial administration from there through remote control. His absence from the scene has given currency to reports about the power tussle getting more serious.
It is apparent that the divide is not driven by an internal power struggle alone. It is also over differences on how to deal with the situation arising from the damning Supreme Court ruling that has not only removed Nawaz Sharif from office but also threatened the future of the political family dynasty. Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar are clearly apprehensive about Nawaz Sharif adopting a confrontational path that they believe is being pursued by Maryam and a few others in the party leadership.
The two are strongly opposed to taking on the judiciary and the security establishment perceived by hardliners in the party to be instrumental in Sharif’s downfall. For them, any confrontation with other organs of the state could bring down the entire system.
What worries them is the growing stridency in the tenor of the former prime minister and his daughter targeting the judiciary as well as the security agencies. For Sharif, it is important to mobilise public opinion to keep him politically alive. This strategy may have been successful in winning public sympathy particularly in Punjab’s heartland, but it is questionable whether it can help him get back in the saddle.
Interestingly, notwithstanding some muted criticism, there has not been any strong reaction from senior party leaders regarding Nisar’s diatribe, though the former interior minister does not seem to enjoy much following in the ranks. It perhaps indicates a conscious decision by senior party members not to further fuel internal differences. Despite strong reservations regarding Sharif’s confrontational approach, it does not seem to be in anybody’s interest to split the party.
It is apparent that it will be Nawaz Sharif and not Shahbaz Sharif who could win them votes in the coming elections. It is more political expediency rather than any principle that will keep the party united. But things could change dramatically if Sharif decided to rock the boat more and more.
That also raises the stakes for the interim administration still trying to find a foothold. A looming economic crisis coupled with some serious foreign policy and security challenges have compounded the predicament of an accidental leader. It is not just about the interim arrangement stretching itself to another eight months, but also leading the party into next year’s general elections.
For sure, the system has not collapsed after the removal from office of a third-time prime minister notwithstanding dire predictions. The relatively smooth functioning of the new government is certainly a positive sign. But it is still a long and treacherous road ahead for the government and the ruling party that is facing internal discord. It will all depend on how the party leadership deals with the situation stemming from the new round of legal and political battles. Surely this is a tough challenge for a house divided.
(The writer is an author and a journalist)