On August 21, former Prime Minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan was booked under terrorism charges for “threatening” high-level police officials in Islamabad, along with the additional sessions judge and the magistrate. Khan has accused the military of being behind the crackdown on him and his party, which is being orchestrated by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led federal government, amid a media ban on his speeches.
Khan’s escalating popularity following his unceremonious exit from the prime minister’s office in April – despite the establishment using all means, including torture, against the PTI – is threatening to bring the curtain down on the PML-N and the political future of the Sharif family.
Despite the PML-N-led coalition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) managing to push the PTI government out of the center, Khan’s party continues to lead the government in Punjab, which has been the Sharif family’s stronghold for four decades. The PTI thumped the PML-N in by-elections for 20 provincewide Punjab Assembly seats last month, underlining the contrasting directions the two parties are headed on the popularity scale.
On August 21, amid reports of the PTI chief’s imminent arrest circulating on social media, the party also won a by-election in Karachi, where the PML-N remains largely nonexistent. Even so, it is Punjab, the country’s largest, and often politically decisive province, that will determine the fate of the PML-N – both in the short and long term.
The Diplomat conducted interviews across Punjab to gauge the political landscape ahead of the next general elections. While much of the vocal support is dedicated to the PTI, the PML-N’s traditional vote-bank still exists, even if many party loyalists express their reservations.
“It was a massive blunder on the part of the PML-N to push the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan,” Narowal based cabdriver Imran Rana, a longtime PML-N voter, said while talking to The Diplomat.
“The economy was collapsing, Imran Khan’s popularity was shrinking – he and his party would have been eliminated for good in the next election if they had been allowed to continue,” he added.
Inflation was mounting amid the stalled International Monetary Fund (IMF) program and the PTI-enforced fuel subsidy was weighing heavily on the national exchequer when Khan was removed from the prime minister’s office. The Pakistani rupee lost over a third of its value in little over three months after Khan’s ouster, after eventually making considerable gains against the U.S. dollar in August. However, as the country registered its highest-ever weekly inflation of 42.31 percent on August 18, much of the blame for that has naturally fallen on the incumbent government, despite their best efforts to underline the flaws in PTI’s economic policies.
“Things were tough under Imran Khan, but this government has made it impossible for us to survive,” exclaimed Muhammad Bashir, a small grocery shop owner in Bhakkar, while talking to The Diplomat.
“Now they say that it is the PTI government’s fault. Didn’t Imran Khan also repeatedly say that the problems in his tenure were because of the Sharif family?” added Bashir, who is a longtime admirer of the PML-N supremo, Nawaz Sharif.
Many supporters of Nawaz Sharif believe the current federal government, an alliance spearheaded by the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), doesn’t represent the PML-N founder’s wishes. Nawaz’s younger brother, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has been the PML-N’s president since his elder brother’s disqualification from both the PM office and party leadership in the leadup to the 2018 elections, which eventually saw Nawaz, engulfed by prison sentences, self-exile to London in 2019. The average PML-N supporter does not politically resonate with Shehbaz, who has traditionally been in favor of reconciliation with the army. The army brought about the downfall of Nawaz – much like its mechanizations against Imran Khan today.
“This government has nothing to do with Nawaz Sharif. It is Shehbaz Sharif and his alliance with [PPP president Asif Ali] Zardari which has brought both the PML-N and Pakistan into the current mess,” Minahil Yousaf, a designer from Lodhran, who comes from a family of PML-N supporters, remarked while talking to The Diplomat.
Nawaz Sharif spent much of the PTI rule targeting Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for ousting his government, even as his PML-N joined Imran Khan’s party in extending Bajwa’s tenure at the helm of the military. The divide between the two Sharif brothers in dealing with the military has created a schism within the party as well, with both sides seeking to wrestle decisive control over the PML-N. Many party leaders from the Nawaz camp maintain that Shehbaz’s bid to topple Imran Khan with the help of the army did not have the backing of the PML-N supremo.
“Nawaz Sharif was never in favor of the timing of the no confidence motion. He has been asking for the government to call early elections to avoid the mistakes of the PTI being pinned on the PML-N,” a senior PML-N leader told The Diplomat. However, insiders claim that Shehbaz wanted to go ahead with the move under the impression that being on the military’s side will suffice to ensure power both in the shorter and longer term.
Indeed, Shehbaz’s clash with Nawaz is hardly ideological. Nawaz too was a military puppet during his political infancy in the 1980s and has deliberately maintained a narrative flexible enough, for instance, to include both religious pluralism and political alliance with anti-Shia jihadists in Punjab. This fundamental elasticity, in the largely business-oriented Nawaz Sharif, has allowed him to mold and remold positions in accordance with his political needs, without having to shackle himself to any worldview that might not be in his best interests at any given point in time.
The differences between the two Sharif brothers, hence, have largely remained over the strategy with which to attain, and maintain, political power. However, Imran Khan’s anti-establishment narrative since his ouster has transformed the PML-N’s internal divide into a veritable existential crisis.
Even as Khan is practically confessing to having worked at the behest of the army during his tenure, he has usurped Nawaz Sharif’s recent rhetoric on the military being kept separate from politics – echoed via the slogan “vote ko izzat do” (respect the vote) in Nawaz’s speeches – and popularized it at a far greater scale than the PML-N could. And Khan was handed over the opportunity to do so by Shehbaz Sharif’s shortsighted masochism, with his critics accusing him of an obsessive drive to see himself as the prime minister, his son Hamza Shehbaz as the chief minister of Punjab, and his half of the Sharif family in charge of the PML-N.
As a result, the Shehbaz-led PML-N and their government have resorted to renditions of the same tactics that were deployed against them under the PTI regime. These range from censorship to physical abuses as even the erstwhile staunchest critics of the military within the PML-N now demand enforced veneration of the army. The PML-N’s reinforcing political capitulation to the army has further amplified the party’s narrative vacuum.
By contrast, Imran Khan has successfully perpetuated his anti-corruption persona, even as his government oversaw a plunge in the transparency index, and propagated a conspiracy theory about the U.S. orchestrating his downfall, despite the lack of any actual evidence to support his farfetched notion. Much of this is through the PTI’s campaigning on social media, where the party has long had a head start. Despite gradually waking up to the significance of social media in recent years, the PML-N continues to lag behind the PTI on the digital front.
A member of the PML-N’s digital media team told The Diplomat that his party leaders remain “clueless” as to how social media actually works.
“They think that they can just become more popular if they are made to go ‘viral’ on Facebook and if Twitter hashtags are fabricated in their favor. Yes, PTI has mastered the art of troll farming, but not everything can be manufactured on social media,” he said.
“Recently, much of our social media activity is dedicated to targeting Imran Khan, for which we also have support from the digital networks sponsored by intelligence agencies. But none of the [PML-N] leaders realize that they also need to offer narratives that can attract the masses and have the capacity to become popular organically,” the PML-N worker added.
While Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, has maintained a social media presence, her activity has exacerbated the Sharif family’s internal divides rather than putting forth efforts to consolidate the party’s unified position. Maryam’s tweets instructing cabinet ministers how to do their jobs have caused internal disgruntlement among many senior PML-N leaders. Her post in ostensible acceptance of her party’s defeat in last month’s by-elections was perceived as a jibe against the Shehbaz-Hamza camp, on whom the loss was pinned. The open rejection of the government’s economic policies, ostensibly on behalf of Nawaz Sharif, has virtually placed Maryam Nawaz at loggerheads with her own parliamentary party, further fanning longstanding claims within party dissenters that Nawaz, and now Maryam, are aspiring to arbitrarily run the PML-N.
“Political stability is linked to financial stability. Had certain economic decisions been taken sooner, the financial situation would have been better. Consensus is needed on all fronts, including on the economic policies, which are being devised by the PML-N right now,” the general secretary of PPP’s Punjab chapter, Chaudhry Manzoor Ahmad, told The Diplomat.
The confusions and contradictions, both within the PML-N and among its allies such as the PPP, have prompted rumors that Nawaz Sharif himself might return to Pakistan in September. While PML-N minister Javed Latif and party spokesperson Azma Bukhari have made the claim, many other PML-N leaders have suggested that no decision has been taken as yet.
“If Nawaz Sharif comes back near the next general elections it might make a difference, but returning right now probably will not,” said former Punjab chief minister and political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of “The Military and Politics in Pakistan 1947-1997,” while talking to The Diplomat.
“As things stand, unless he gets relief from the court, he will have to go straight to the prison,” added Rizvi.
Any relief for Nawaz Sharif would inevitably depend on the military establishment exercising their influence to counter Imran Khan who, like his rival Nawaz was during the PTI’s reign, is being judicially targeted through the prohibited funding case and now the terrorism charges. And while that would not be the first time for Nawaz to contradict his previous stance, or abet the military to take down a leader basking in popularity, should the PML-N supremo strike yet another deal with the devil he might in turn be striking another nail in his own political dynasty’s future.
The PML-N faces both internal and external questions for which the party needs to provide coherent, and consistent, answers for both its disgruntled loyalists and the fast-shrinking swing voters.