GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 816, 16 February 2024

He came, he saw and he said No Why did Nawaz choose Shehbaz? Four explanations
D Suba Chandran

Of all the surprises of the post-election, Nawaz Sharif saying no to becoming the Prime Minister for the fourth time should have been a significant one. Why did he give up?
Despite all the court cases and political misgivings on whether he will return, Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in October 2023, well ahead of the elections. He was living in exile in London; there was so much discussion about whether he would return and be allowed to return. There was also the threat of arrest on his return; the courts had declared him an offender, as he failed to turn up for cases against him.
Despite all the questions, he returned to Pakistan. Did he return to make Shehbaz as the PM?
Efforts were made to facilitate his return – from legal to military, exceptions were made. The party celebrated his return and pushed him as the prime ministerial candidate of the PML-N. From his brother to the last cadre of the party, there was no confusion from October 2023 to February 2024 (until two days before) on who would become the PM from the PML-N. Since his arrival, there was no doubt within the PML-N, whether the party would win. Nawaz Sharif contested the elections from two national assembly constituencies – Manshera and Lahore. Obviously, he saw himself as a PM candidate. Even Bilawal Bhutto, during the campaign, alluded to it.
After all the above, why did Nawaz Sharif give up the PM position and ask his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, to become the Prime Minister? And why did Shehbaz agree to it? Was it Nawaz’s decision, or was he given with no other choice?
Based on the media reports and conspiracy theories in Pakistan, the following four explanations could be offered as reasons for Nawaz Sharif asking Shehbaz to become the coalition’s Prime Minister.
First, the disappointing election results for the PML-N and Nawaz. A section within the PML-N feels that Nawaz Sharif is unhappy with the election results. There was an expectation within the Sharif family and the PML-N that the party would win the elections – both for the national assembly and for the Punjab provincial assembly with a good margin. The result was far from it. At the national level, the PML-N could win hardly ten more seats than during the 2018 elections. The party could not make any significant gain for the Punjab provincial assembly. The independents (including those who were backed by the PTI) have secured more than the PML-N.
When Nawaz returned, he was expected to revitalize the PML-N and bring it back to its glory days. With the Establishment supporting the party and the PTI and Imran Khan on the other side of the wall, there was an expectation that the PML-N would redo the 2013 magic. The result, however, was a disappointment. The PML-N is no more the party that it was, with the PTI making inroads. Perhaps, Nawaz is no more the magician that he was.
This is not the victory Nawaz expected; perhaps he considers this a “moth-eaten” PML-N. One of the reasons is, he does not want to lead a weak party at the federal level, and also in Punjab.
Second, the coalition troubles and Nawaz’s pragmatism. The theory goes that the coalition members, especially the PPP, is not keen on Nawaz as the PM candidate. Since the 1980s, perhaps, the story should go back to the 1970s when the senior Bhutto nationalised the Sharif business. Nawaz has seen three generations of the Bhuttos – Zulfikar, Benazir and now Bilawal. For the Bhuttos, Shehbaz is a better leader to work with, than his brother. During the 1980s and 1990s, the PPP (then led by Benazir) and the PML-N (led by Nawaz) fought bitterly with each other, and the differences goes down all the way to the last party worker in Larkana.
After the elections, both PML-N and PPP do not have enough seats to form the government. When they started talking about a coalition, both wanted the PM position. The PML-N may have more seats, but it cannot form the government at the national level without the PPP’s support. It cannot form even in Punjab. That is not the case for the PPP; it has Sindh completely on its side. Did the PPP place a condition to the PML-N that it would not accept Nawaz as the PM candidate, if it had to support the PML-N and be a part of the coalition? With the maverick Fazlur Rahman outside the tent, it may not be easier to convince the PPP.
It is possible, that the PPP placed the Shehbaz condition to support the coalition.
Third, a conspiracy theory. The Establishment, though was agreeable to the return of Nawaz Sharif, it was not keen to have him as a PM candidate. The argument goes that the Establishment-Nawaz differences are too deep, and the former never trusted the latter, despite agreeing to his return. The Establishment engaged in a calibrated election engineering to ensure that the PML-N wins, but does not have enough seats. Is there more to be read from Nawaz’s defeat in the Manshera National Assembly?
Has the Establishment conveyed that Nawaz is not acceptable?
Fourth, a plot for a South Asian TV show. Nawaz sacrificed and agreed to give up the position so that his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, could become the Chief Minister of Punjab. Before the elections, and even in the immediate aftermath of the results, there was an expectation within the PML-N that Nawaz would become the PM of Pakistan and Shehbaz the Chief Minister of Punjab province.
After the opposition from the PPP and the Establishment, what choices exist before Nawaz and his immediate family? He can insist that he will be the PM; the PML-N including Shehbaz will support the position. But the CM position certainly would not have gone to Maryam.
The subtle but strong differences between the next generation Sharifs (Maryam Nawaz and Hamsa Shehbaz) is an issue that will come to the fore soon. As it had happened between the Chaudhrys of the Gujarat. Perhaps, Nawaz sees the writing on the family wall, and wants Maryam to start from Lahore, before going to Islamabad. If she has to become a PM and acceptable to all of the PML-N, she has to start from Lahore, as Nawaz and Shehbaz started.
There could be a fifth reason as well. We will have to wait and see.

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