Why Nawaz Sharif’s party has toned down its anti-establishment rhetoric in Pakistan

The thunder has gone with the change in narrative. It is no more Pakistan’s military leadership that is the main nemesis. There is no more talk of storming the citadel. It is back to normal politics with an eye on the next elections. With the return of the uncle, the niece has taken a back seat. There has been a tangible shift in Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) politics.

From Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s and his daughter Maryam Nawaz’s relentless attack on the country’s military leadership and their insistence on bringing down the entire system, it is now the politics of reconciliation. While attacks on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government continue, there is no more talk of destroying the edifice. With the return of Shehbaz Sharif, there is a visible change in that approach.

This change in the Pakistani Muslim League (N)’s strategy seemed inevitable after the collapse of the Pakistan Democratic Movement and its failure to bring down the government through a mass movement. A major reason for the fragmentation of the motley alliance was the hard-line position taken by Maryam Nawaz who had become the main face of the party in the absence of her uncle and her cousin Hamza Shehbaz.

Former Pakistan Prime Nawaz Sharif with his daughter, Maryam, Photo credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Divided opposition

Undoubtedly, widely perceived as the heiress of the Sharif political dynasty, she revitalised the party but her politics lacked maturity. It was a dire miscalculation both on the part of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter that their strong anti-establishment narrative would lead to a mass uprising against the hybrid rule. Not only did the strategy fail to bring down the government, but it also divided the opposition.

It is apparent that the party’s push for resignation from the national and provincial assemblies not only led to the break-up of the Pakistan Democratic Movement but also widened the divide within its own ranks. In fact, the decision to participate in the Senate elections as well in the by-elections earned the party and the opposition far greater political dividends.

The clean sweep by the opposition dealt a far greater blow to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government. Perhaps, that also strengthened the thinking in the Pakistan Muslim League (N) that it would be better to focus more on electoral politics rather than try and bring down the system. There is, however, also a strong argument that perhaps the electoral victory would not have been possible without the mass mobilisation under the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

Ironically, the electoral competition further widened the cleavage between the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Peoples Party. A more mature Pakistan Muslim League (N) leadership could have dealt with the differences more prudently and saved the Pakistan Democratic Movement from falling apart. In fact, the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s change of tack became imperative after the party’s failure to stage a powerful show of strength during the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s rally in Lahore, its political stronghold, last December.

Desperate attempts

For the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leadership, it was to be a decisive stage in the movement to oust the government. Some of the party leaders thought that a strong show of strength in Punjab’s capital could also neutralise the security establishment.

But a low turnout blunted the impact. The deadline of December 31 for the government to step down also proved to be a major tactical mistake, raising questions about the party’s strategy. The Lahore debacle also exposed the differences within Pakistan Muslim League (N) ranks and widened the fault lines in the opposition alliance.

In a desperate attempt some of the Pakistan Democratic Movement parties, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League (N), pressed for quitting parliament. But the move could not materialise because of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s opposition. The Lahore failure and the split in the Pakistan Democratic Movement provided the Imran Khan government with critical political space. Shehbaz Sharif’s detention seemed to have given a free hand to Maryam.

But it was obvious that despite her growing popular appeal and ability to draw large crowds her strategy to bring down the government through a mass movement was not working. Meanwhile, success in the by-elections strengthened the argument within the party in favour of a more prudent approach.

There has been a growing sense of confidence within party ranks that they could easily sweep the next elections in Punjab and return to power without disrupting the system. For many among the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leadership, it was imperative to review the anti-establishment policy.

The rhetoric is already down and some of the party leaders have openly been advocating for mending fences with the military leadership in order to fully focus on the struggle against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government.

Change of direction

Shehbaz Sharif’s release on bail gave further impetus to the change of direction. Although the overall leadership of the party still lies with Nawaz Sharif, the younger brother is now fully in charge on the ground. The tone is markedly different. Shehbaz Sharif has also moved to reunite the Pakistan Democratic Movement by reaching out to the Pakistan Peoples Party and Awami National Party. The two parties were forced out of the alliance over their differences with the Pakistan Muslim League (N) regarding the opposition’s strategy. It may not be easy for them to return to the fold after the acrimonious parting of ways but they can cooperate on issues in parliament.

For sure, the new tone together with the return of Shehbaz Sharif does not mean a split in the party. Despite the inner-party struggle, there is no possibility of fragmentation. In some strange way, both the narratives work well with the party members when they prepare to go for elections. It is Nawaz Sharif and his daughter who would get them the votes but they would like Shehbaz Sharif’s non-confrontationist approach to get back in power.

It is apparent that the political parties are already in an election frame of mind. With the pathetic performance of the Imran Khan government particularly in Punjab, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) appears much more confident about its success. The growing fissures within the ranks of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf seem to have further boosted the party’s morale.

The lowering of anti-establishment rhetoric is certainly a part of the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s election strategy that could allow it to return to power. But there is still a long way to go before the next polls and there are political uncertainties along the way.

This article first appeared in Dawn.

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