Pakistan: Politics of PML-N under Nawaz Sharif


Asif Haroon Raja

Era of Gen. Ziaul Haq (July 5, 1977-August 17, 1988)

PML-N under Nawaz Sharif (NS) flourished under the patronage of late Gen Ziaul Haq. It took full advantage of Gen. Zia’s animus against the PPP which was then the largest political party and was under the sway of Bhuttoism even after ZA Bhutto was hanged in April 1979 on orders of the then Supreme Court. Gen. Zia in search of a political dispensation opted for party-less elections in 1985 and chose MK Junejo as the PM and head of PML-J, and NS as chief minister Punjab. When Junejo was sacked by Zia in May 1988, NS formed PML-N.

Democratic Era of 1988-1999

After the death of Gen Zia in a plane crash in August 1988, NS remained in good books of the military establishment and formed part of IJI to prevent Benazir Bhutto (BB) from achieving landslide victory in October 1988 elections since she was viewed as a security risk. BB didn’t buy the idea of national government and was allowed to form PPP government under conditions that Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) will continue as president and Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub will act as foreign minister. She was kept away from Kahuta. NS retained the post of CM Punjab.

After premature ouster of PPP regime in 1990, NS strengthened by religious vote bank formed a government in the Centre and Punjab, and remained in power till 1993. While President GIK dismissed him, the Supreme Court restored him to power but was again sacked by the fuming president. When he returned to power in 1997, 5million religious votes and 2 million other votes helped him in gaining two-thirds majority. Swing of the Religious Right towards PML-N was owing to rising anti-Bhuttoism and anti-secularism sentiment from the time of Nizam-e-Mustafa movement launched by nine-party PNA movement in 1977. As such, PML-N became a Centre Rightist Party. The democratic era of 1990s saw division of PML into PML-N, PML-J, PML-Chatha and PML-F factions.

Gen Musharraf Rule (October 12, 1999-August 2008)

Somehow, NS could not develop trustworthy equation with any army chief after Gen. Zia. He had problems with Gen. Mirza Beg, Gen. Asif Nawaz, Gen. Waheed and Gen. Karamat. During his second stint in power, after narrowly escaping from the claws of chief justice Sajjad Ali, he fell from grace of the military and was shown the door by Gen. Musharraf in October 1999. He was awarded life sentence on farcical charges of plane hijacking and terrorism. Thanks to King Saud, he and his entire family including Shahbaz Sharif (SS) were freed under an agreement and exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2001 for next ten years where they lived as State guests and established their steel businesses.

Even though Gen. Musharraf formed a civil government of King’s Party comprised of defectors from other parties as a result of heavily rigged 2002 elections, absence of two mainstream parties made the political dispensation weak. Three PMs (Jamali, Shujaat and Shaukat Aziz, all from PML-Q) changed hands in his nine years rule. Musharraf tried hard to win over PPP and to make Amin Faheem the PM, but PPP minus BB was unacceptable to Faheem and other party stalwarts. Zardari facing dozens of corruption cases was released from jail and allowed to join his family at Dubai to obtain approval of his wife. Ultimately Musharraf had to make a secret deal of power sharing with BB in July 2007 and issue National Reconciliation Order (NRO) in October 2007 to clear the way for BB and other runaway PPP leaders to return home and take part in 2008 elections.

MQM was made the beneficiary of NRO and its 8000 criminals were cleansed. BB made an agreement with military dictator in violation of Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by her and NS at London in May 2006. NS and SS had no share in the NRO, but King Saud once gain prevailed upon Gen Musharraf and the two brothers were allowed to return home. But only SS could take part in the elections while NS was not cleared by the Election Commission (EC).

BB’s murder on December 27, 2007 triggered sympathy wave for the popular BB and enabled the most controversial man Zardari to become PPP head and later the President of Pakistan. Musharraf preferred exile over impeachment. While PPP formed governments in the Centre, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Baluchistan with the help of other coalition partners, PML-N succeeded in forming its government in Punjab at its own strength. PPP made MQM its coalition partner in the Centre and Sindh in spite of APDM’s resolution in July 2007 that power will not be shared with it because of its politics of violence.

PPP Rule (March 2008-March 2013)

The five-year black rule of PPP-MQM-ANP enfeebled Pakistan socially, politically and economically and engulfed it in worst energy crisis. Under the faulty concept of national reconciliation, accountability was in name only. Yusaf Raza Gilani was unseated by the judiciary for refusing to initiate a letter to Swiss authorities to open Zardari’s $60 million case. Raja Pervez Ashraf, known as Raja Rental was made the PM. The rulers kept plundering the nation with both hands and at the same time defying the judiciary through delaying tactics. Not a single mega corruption case could be proved by the super active judiciary under Chief Justice Iftikhar.

PPP and MQM were strange bedfellows. Despite their deep-seated antagonism, they shared the same bed for full five years due to common mutual interests of crime and corruption. People of Karachi suffered the most on account of this marriage of convenience. People became fed up of democracy and vied for return of military.

PML-N Third Stint in Power (June 2013 till To-date)

June 2013 elections brought PML-N to power with two-thirds majority and it formed governments at the Centre, in Punjab and Baluchistan, while PPP was consigned to Sindh only. NS became the first leader to sit in PM’s chair third time. Both PML-N and PPP didn’t accommodate MQM as their coalition partner since its criminal activities in urban Sindh had scaled new heights.

PTI that had emerged as the third force as a consequence to the massive misdoings of PPP, MQM and ANP gained power in KP. PML-N victory was billed to high performance of SS in Punjab and the sympathy wave for NS on account of being wronged in 1999.

Challenges Faced. Although it was an uphill task for the new regime to deal with the menaces of energy, sunk economy, ideologically motivated terrorism in northwest, secular oriented separatist movement in Baluchistan, lawlessness of MQM that had bloodied Karachi, fallout effects of 18th amendment which had made provinces more autonomous, and highly dangerous external environments, it braced up to tackle all the fronts with full vigor.

Successes Achieved. Security forces succeeded in bridling terrorism in FATA/KP to a large extent, in taking the steam out of Baloch separatists, and in making Karachi peaceful. Economic managers uplifted macro indicators from negative to positive, overcame electricity shortfalls and minimized load shedding from 20 hours to 4 hours. It is to the credit of the ruling regime that so far no mega corruption scandal has surfaced. Launching of mega projects including energy and water projects at a large scale, and game changing CPEC together with improved security environment helped in attracting international investors and improving the image of Pakistan which was being dubbed as a failing and insecure State.

Hurdles Created by PTI

Owing to multifarious challenges, this government laid very little emphasis towards accountability. Reasons were the hurdles created by PTI led by Imran Khan (IK), meddlesome roles of India and Afghanistan in our internal affairs and USA’s overweening posture, all involved in fueling terrorism in Pakistan from Afghanistan. But for these retrogressive factors, greater progress could have been achieved in the fields of development and accountability.

The first deliberate attempt to topple the regime was made by PTI-PAT under Tahirul Qadri (TuQ) combine in July 2014 on the premise that 2013 elections were massively rigged, otherwise PTI was the winner. TuQ drummed up the Model Town incident in which 14 PAT workers were killed in the clashes between the police and PAT.

When the six-month long sit-in couldn’t make a breakthrough, the next effort was made in the wake of Panama Leaks in April 2016 and corruption issue was magnified. This was reinforced by security related Dawn Leaks case. After attempting to invade Jati Umra in September 2016, a two-pronged physical attack on Islamabad was planned next month, but it fizzled out. While Dawn Leaks case was closed after three senior officials were sacked, Panama case lingered on and eventually the judiciary succeeded in ousting NS in July 2017. Judiciary did what IK had failed to do so.


Events after July 28, 2017

NS Dismissed. Lot of water has flown down the River Indus from July 28 till to date and events are unfolding with rapidity. NS willy-nilly accepted the 5-member bench verdict and handed over power to Khaqan Abbasi but didn’t agree with the decision. In his and his party leaders view, the verdict was opinionated, predisposed and pre-determined. In their opinion the JIT monitored by the Bench and mandated to complete its investigations within 60 days was prejudiced and hostile. They argue that once the JIT failed to collect any evidence of corruption or mal practice, it came up with an altogether new aspect of Iqama, which had no connection with Panama case, and became the basis of imposition of lifetime ban upon NS from politics.

Road Move. In order to generate sympathy wave in his favor on the plea that he was wronged by the judiciary, NS undertook GT Road move from Islamabad to Lahore and pleaded his case before the people. The enthusiasm with which the surging crowds welcomed him at various cities en-route was a clear sign that the judicial decision had not dented his popularity and the people had accepted his version. This road journey helped him win the crucial NA-120 seat vacated by him in by-election on September 17 for which he nominated his wife Kulsoom Nawaz (KS).

NA-120 Contest. The day the nomination papers of KS were accepted by the EC, she accompanied by NS flew to London for cancer treatment. As such, she couldn’t take part in the canvassing even for a single day. She has undergone three surgeries of her throat and chest to remove cancerous ligaments in quick succession this month and is now fast recovering. Her full recuperation is likely to take 2-3 months before she is able to take on her duties as elected MNA in the Parliament. Her victory in NA-120 Lahore is owed to her husband’s undiminished popularity and vigorous campaigning of her daughter Maryam Nawaz who undertook this duty single-handedly and made a place for herself in the political arena.

Afflictions of NS not over

NS afflictions are not over; rather worst is yet to come since he is faced with three corruption related references and the NAB has already issued two summons to him and his two sons Hassan and Hussain, his daughter Maryam, his son-in-law Capt Safdrar and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. Like the JIT, the NAB is also being supervised by a Supreme Court judge from within the five-member bench that had disqualified him. NAB had been tasked to complete the preliminaries of trial proceedings within 45 days after the July 28 decision and to complete the trial by next March 2018. These steps are unprecedented. Review petition filed by NS and his children was heard by the same bench and rejected in indecent haste.

Fear of Conspiracy

NS and his party leaders feel that a preplanned conspiracy was hatched to topple PML-N regime. Harsh attitude of the 5-member bench and the language used by two judges equating NS with godfather and Mafia, disqualifying NS on the basis of highly controversial JIT that was challenged by respondents, issuance of references against NS and his family , appointing a supervisory judge over the NAB and making the latter time-bound, speedy rejection of review petition and re-opening of old Hudaibia Paper Mills case were some of the steps that were taken to disfavor PML-N candidate in the  vital NA-120 bye-elections in which the main contestants were PML-N and PTI; former primed against judicial verdict and latter supporting the verdict. Judiciary became the rallying slogan for the two contenders.

PML-N leaders feel that accountability of NS under judicial cover is a farce and was engineered to oust NS from power. In their view the whole proceedings of the Bench and the JIT unfolded in accordance with a preconceived script and that the script has now been handed over to the NAB to nail down NS ad his family. They suspect that Hudaibia case and Model Town case are part of the script to nail down SS and his son Hamza.

Suspected Role of Establishment

Hawks within the PML-N suspect that the Establishment had backed IK to adopt an aggressive posture against the government, and is now behind the judiciary since it want PTI to take over power in next elections.

Emergence of two new religious parties shortly before NA-120 election and fielding of 40 contestants was seen as Establishment’s plan to steal PML-N votes. Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (T LP) and Milli Muslim League (MML) captured 11% votes in this constituency because of which N-League’s vote bank shrunk from 61% in 2013 elections to 49.3%.

Establishment’s Concerns

If the theory of military backing the judiciary is taken as true for arguments sake, the only plausible reason would be that the military has found out a connection between NS and India and they see him as a security risk. This suspicion could be based on the visit of Modi to Jati Umra, NS meetings with Indian national Jindal, presence of Indians in Ramzan Sugar Mills, NS policy of one-sided appeasement of India, desisting from mentioning the name of Kulbushan Yadhav, registering FIR against Maulana Azhar in Pathankot incident case, and then the Dawn Leaks. Sacrifice of three officials must not have satisfied the military since the repercussions of the leaks were highly detrimental for the Army and ISI.

Another aspect which could have vexed the military is the nexus between politics, corruption, crime and terrorism. Former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif is on record having stated that unless corruption was effectively tackled, terrorism wouldn’t be rooted out. In this regard he had mentioned about handlers, facilitators and financiers abetting terrorism.

It is also a known fact that the PPP had put hurdles in the way of Sindh Rangers. It refused them the authority to chase terrorists in interior Sindh, and limited their activities to terrorism only. As a result, no big fish involved in corruption and financial terrorism has been convicted in Sindh where corruption is eating up Rs. 240 billion annually.

Likewise, Punjab government had all along blocked the entry of Army and Rangers to operate against militants in Punjab till as late as February 2017.  Even now, Punjab Rangers do not enjoy powers as enjoyed by Sindh Rangers.

While the corrupt politicians are eating up the State funds and resources gluttonously like parasites, accountability is in name only since the NAB is ineffective and anti-corruption bodies are themselves in league with the corrupt. Conversely, Army men, JCOs and officers toiling hard and laying down their lives to rid the country from the menace of terrorism.

Ground Realities

  1. Till 2013 elections PML-N and PPP were the only two mainstream national parties.
  2. After the 2013 elections, PPP got converted into a regional party and its chances of re-emerging as a national party have narrowed down owing to its dismal performance in Sindh, Bilawal not coming up to the mark as a national leader and the rope around the neck of Zardari getting tightened.
  3. PTI has emerged as a third force but it has no seat in Baluchistan and only four seats in Sindh. It has failed to dilute the popularity of PML-N in Punjab. Its vote bank in KP has shrunk because of lack of governance and performance. Induction of corrupt electable from other parties in PTI has spoilt the image of the party. Its chances of defeating PML-N in next elections are slim particularly when cases of foreign funding and disqualification of IK on account of being dishonest are being actively pursued by courts.
  4. MQM has splintered into three factions and London group under Altaf Hussain ostracized. Karachi based two factions are more close to PML-N and averse to PPP.
  5. Traditional religious political parties have lost their sway after MMA power show in 2002 and new Right Parties – MML and TLP de-linked with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat- Ulema-Islam have emerged and their performance was much better than JI in NA-120 bye-elections.
  6. PML-N has lost the votes of Punjab based Religious Right owing to Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Raddul Fasaad against the militants in northwest. Hanging of Mumtaz Qadri involved in murder of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer has angered Barelvis. They hold NS responsible and vow to avenge his death. This Right vote loss has made PML-N a centrist party.
  7. Apparently, PML-N and PPP are still tied to CoD but practically the cooperation has ended.
  8. PML-N is the lone national party with roots in all provinces including Gilgit Baltistan and AJK. Its success is attributed mainly to NS and partly to SS. Solidarity and success of the party is dependent upon the two brothers. However, it is mired in deep troubles and suspects that a plan has been hatched to prevent this party from regaining power in next elections by keeping NS and SS out and fracturing the party.

Stabilizing Factors. Events that have brought some relief to PML-N and has constrained its opponents are as under:

  1. Smooth hand over of power to PM Abbasi, and the latter running the show smoothly and pursuing development agenda.
  2. Appointment of foreign minister, which has been the protracted complaint of the opposition.
  3. Appropriate response to Trump’s aggressive Afghan policy, well received by the public.
  4. Effective and balanced speech delivered by Abbasi at the UNGA, which is extoled.
  5. Army chief’s interaction with politicians and senators, assuring them that civil-military are on one page has dispelled the impression of rift between the Army and government.
  6. Holding of 20-overs matches at Lahore between Pakistan cricket team and World Eleven team followed by a friendly cricket match between Pakistani and UK cricket teams at newly constructed stadium in North Waziristan has given a loud message to the world that Pakistan is a secure place and peace loving country which aspires for peace and not war.
  7. Impressive victory in NA-120.
  8. Passage of Electoral Law Bill by the PPP dominated Senate, repealing Political Parties Order 2002. This became possible because of the thin presence of PPP and PTI members on the day of voting, FATA members voting against 2002 clause and MQM abstaining from voting. The amended law has paved the way for disqualified NS to regain his lost seat of president of his party which is presently in the hands of Sardar Yaqub.
  9. Senate elections in March 2018 will give majority to PML-N. Once it achieves majority in both the Houses, it will be in a position to table and pass judiciary related bills to clip the wings of judiciary.


Rumor Mongering

  • It was rumored that over 60 PML-N MNAs would defect after the adverse ruling of judiciary. This hypothesis proved wrong. Except for Ch Nisar who has adopted a rebellious posture while remaining part of the party, PML-N is fully intact and is loyal to NS.
  • Rumor mongers pinned their hopes on NA-120 results going against KS, that could trigger defection of fence sitters, but that too went against them.
  • Till September 24, social and electronic media were straining their lungs saying the NS and Ishaq Dar would not return to Pakistan from London to face the accountability court. They had to chew their words in shame when both returned today and will present themselves before the accountability court on Sept 26.
  • Rumors of widening rift within the PML-N rank and file are now in circulation. It is gossiped that there is a rift between NS and SS families. Reasons put forward are that SS was not made the interim PM, or President of PML-N, and that his son Hamza was kept away from NA-120 elections. Such conjectures gave grist to media to assume that the house of PML-N is divided and will soon fall apart. SS has dispelled this circulating rumor.
  • Social and electronic media aired news of PML-N and MQM London alliance and possible meeting between NS and Altaf at London. This supposition has also died its death with the return of NS.


Challenges ahead of Ruling Party

How to deal with aggressive judiciary and NAB and save NS and his family from getting convicted?

How to deal with IK who has now demanded early elections?

How to deal with TuQ demanding punishment of killers of Model Town victims and their backers?

Ignoring the advice of some senior party leaders and his daughter to stay put in London, NS has again taken the risk of presenting himself before the accountability court well knowing that the dice is heavily loaded against him. He is drawing strength from the fact that three inquests have failed to prove any corruption against him and his hands are clean.

If NS takes the legal route, his legal team and media cell will drum up the glaring lacunas in the July 28 verdict and prejudices of the bench and JIT, while NS will hold public meetings to put the judiciary on the defensive.

Once he finds that no relief is possible and jail awaits him, he may adopt a confrontational posture and resort to agitations and sit-ins in Punjab under the slogan of ‘Jaaq Punjabi Jaag. If so, it will have fatal consequences for the integrity of the country, since Punjab is the heartland of Pakistan and it acts as the glue for all federating units. It will make the position of hard pressed military precarious.

Pushed against the wall, NS may offer a hand of friendship to MQM London, make efforts to re-unify the party and work for making a MQM-PML-N coalition government in Sindh after next elections. All this may be undertaken to rein in the hounding judiciary possibly backed by the establishment.

The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence and security analyst, columnist, writes exclusively for VT, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre.



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