On The Side

Hamza Shahbaz: Sidelined

Updated 01 Jun, 2019 07:41pm
Illustration by Maria Huma
Illustration by Maria Huma

Hamza Shahbaz was seen as the future face of both the Sharif family and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) — that is, until recently. With his uncle Nawaz Sharif and his cousin Maryam Nawaz disqualified from holding public office, and his father Shehbaz Sharif embroiled in corruption cases, he, at one stage, seemed to be a natural candidate to lead the family and the party into the future. A leader who could possibly save his family’s – and PMLN’s – political fortunes from floundering. Given some recent events, he might need some saving himself.

Over the last few weeks Hamza has become yet another member of the Sharif clan to attract the attention of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) which has already made two unsuccessful efforts to arrest him. The first, on Friday April 5, was thwarted by his security guards who barred entry to his residence. The second, a day later, led to a clash between NAB officials and the Sharif family loyalists, causing injuries to two people.

While Hamza is on protective bail for the time being, he is not off the hook yet. He is facing three cases: one for owning assets beyond his known means of income (for which his arrest warrant was issued); a second case pertains to the Punjab Saaf Pani project in which he is alleged to have awarded contracts and made appointments outside his jurisdiction; and a third concerns Ramzan Sugar Mills – a Sharif family business – in which he is accused of building a drain for the factory using public funds during his father’s tenure as chief minister. As Hamza juggles with various judicial proceedings, his political future is beginning to look uncertain.

His rise to the top was predicated upon the fact that leadership in PMLN has always remained in the hands of the Sharif family — which, indeed, has led many senior politicians to leave the party in the past. Such departures became more frequent in the run-up to the 2018 election when many PMLN stalwarts jumped ship to Imran Khan’s camp. Since then the political situation has continued to become grimmer for the party as corruption cases against senior members of the Sharif family multiply and the medical conditions of both Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif remain uncertain.

Difficult times are nothing new for the Sharif family though. Especially so for Hamza whose political journey began at the tender age of 19 when he spent six months in jail during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure as prime minister from 1993 to 1996. At 25, he faced another test. He was left in Pakistan as the only member of the Sharif family to take care of its business and keep PMLN together while almost all his elders were exiled by the government of General Pervez Musharraf.

Over time, Hamza’s influence grew in Punjab’s political arena particularly because he kept the party going during a politically challenging period (2001-07). He got another fillip when he joined his father to oversee politics in the heartland of Punjab after 2008, creating personal ties with PMLN workers at the grass-roots level.

Then, suddenly, something changed and Nawaz Sharif started training Maryam as his political successor. This created a struggle between the cousins — and also some tensions.

Hamza is reported to have disagreed with decisions taken by Maryam during a bypoll campaign in 2017 for a National Assembly seat that became vacant after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. This eventually led to Maryam taking over the campaign completely. Their differences became more evident when, in a speech after winning the bypoll, Nawaz Sharif did not mention Hamza to which PMLN workers responded by chanting his name until Nawaz Sharif was forced to mention him.

Despite these problems, however, the Sharifs have always managed to keep their inner politics away from public scrutiny. This makes them stronger as a political dynasty but it weakens their party. As the older generation of the family is fading out of politics and the younger one is finding it difficult to stay away from the long arm of the law, PMLN seems to be facing a serious succession problem.

Recently, the crisis has become even more acute with Shehbaz Sharif’s rather unexpected resignation from the chairmanship of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee — a post he fought five months to get. His stay in London having been extended beyond its original schedule, PMLN has been forced to carry out a restructuring of itself. Hamza’s lack of eminence in this may have already decided his political future.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.