The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) is currently at a crossroads after the removal from office and potential criminal conviction of Nawaz Sharif. The circumstances are forcing the party that bears his name to begin planning for an uncertain future. While there are many factors that will determine the eventual fate of PMLN, perhaps the most fundamental dilemma it faces has to do with the continued political role of Nawaz Sharif. Is his continued presence fundamental to the success of the party, or is it finally time to move away from him and transfer power to a new generation of leaders?
On the surface, PMLN has chosen to stand by its leader. When the party used its majority in the National Assembly to pass the Election Act 2017 this October, it made sure to include a clause that would allow Nawaz Sharif to retake his place at the head of the party. Although opposition parties in the Senate have, since then, successfully introduced an amendment to the the bill to prevent those disqualified from contesting elections and holding public office from leading a political party, the government has indicated that it will continue to oppose such restrictions when the bill is sent to the National Assembly for passage.
As Nawaz Sharif’s legal troubles mount, as well as those of his children, it is not clear that offering him unconditional support and loyalty is in the best interests of PMLN as a party. It runs the immediate risk of being tarred by the same brush that has tamed its embattled leader. While Nawaz Sharif himself has chosen to robustly contest the allegations against him, choosing to confront both the courts and the military establishment as he attempts to generate public support through a narrative of political victimisation and injustice, this could quickly backfire if proceedings in the accountability courts find him and his immediate family guilty of corruption. In such a scenario, his leadership of the party would almost certainly become an electoral liability, opening PMLN to attack from its political rivals, while also potentially alienating significant portions of the electorate.
Insisting on Nawaz Sharif’s continued leadership of PMLN also threatens to undermine the party’s already fragile institutional structure. Like all of Pakistan’s mainstream parties, PMLN lacks a coherent ideological identity and organisational apparatus, relying heavily on traditional political elites, clientelism and opportunism to fight elections and govern.
These tendencies are exacerbated by a lack of internal democracy, with the centralisation of power in the hands of the Sharif family and its patrimonial approach to party administration, thus stymieing the emergence of alternative voices, talents and organisational strategies. Nawaz Sharif has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in consolidating the appeal of his party since the 1990s, but his outsized presence in PMLN may now militate against generating the kind of dynamism the party will need in the electoral contests of the future.
PMLN has managed to spend much of the last decade reshaping the institutional framework of politics in Pakistan (particularly in Punjab) to tilt the electoral calculus in its favour, accumulating power through legislative and procedural change (by, for example, creating a subservient tier of local government that furthers the interests of the provincial government, and engaging in partisan recruitment to the police and bureaucracy).
All the while it has also been presiding over a network of patronage disbursement that keeps voters and, more importantly, candidates aligned with the party, happy. It has been clear for some time that, under normal circumstances, the biggest threat to the continued supremacy of PMLN in Punjab comes from within, with the prospect of defections and splits engineered by disgruntled politicians.
As reports continue to emerge of a growing rift between Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, with the main point of contention being the desire of the latter to succeed the former, it is not difficult to see how such a conflict might envelop the party as a whole, tearing it apart in an election year. Nawaz Sharif may believe that he has every right to continue leading his party but the reality is that his presence threatens to become increasingly counterproductive for PMLN.
This article was published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.