Volume 21 Issue 11 November 2017


Dynastic politics have been a key feature of the political culture of Pakistan and even after entering the 21st century, tribalism and traditionalism have kept Pakistani democracy hostage. Dynastic rule yet has been manifesting the country’s politics all along. The emergence of Maryam Safdar, the daughter of disqualified prime minister and PML-N founder, Nawaz Sharif, as the political heir-apparent of the Sharif family, is testimony that dynastic rule is a key social fact of Pakistan’s national life.

Surprisingly, Maryam Safdar has emerged from nowhere on the political scene. Previously she had never expressed any intention to join the political arena nor anyone else within the family had come up with the idea. Seemingly, lackeys of Nawaz Sharif introduced the idea of offering Maryam Safdar as the next family choice for the position of prime minister. Nawaz and Maryam sycophants must also have told the father and daughter that Maryam has all what it takes to be the next ruler of Pakistan. Slowly Maryam also started believing that she had all the abilities and qualities to be a successful political leader.

However, there is a whole context to the rise of Maryam Safdar on the political scene. The PML-N has always been a ultraconservative party. This has mainly been due to the fact that the outfit has been run by one family. The family itself has a social and political outlook which leans to the right. The father of Nawaz Sharif, Mian Sharif, left his business and his social legacy to his eldest son, Nawaz. The PML-N has been run as a family property and whenever it ruled the country, Nawaz Sharif became prime minister. There has never been any other candidate fit and appropriate, as far as as the family is concerned, to be the chief executive of the country.

Whenever the party formed the government in the Punjab, either Nawaz Sharif or his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, become the chief minister. Only once, for a brief period, did Sardar Dost Muhammad Khosa become chief minister of the province under the patronage of the Sharifs. This was only to ward off the criticism by political observers and opponents that the PML-N was a family affair. The PML-N has been successful in Pakistani politics partly by keeping the core of the group, which is family-based, intact and partly by patronizing the loyalists in every institution of the government and the state instead of adopting meritocracy.

A family controlled and run political outfit like the PML-N could only be relevant for a specific time and particularly when the overall culture of society was dominated by the values of conservatism. However, with the galloping population of Pakistan and particularly the Punjab, the forte of the PML-N is no more relevant. It is faced by the aggravating problems of the people due to lack or absence of good governance, the concomitant economic pressures and the simultaneous rise of democratic thinking due to increasing information and the media explosion. The old approach and style of politics is no more relevant.

The PML-N especially does not have any appeal for most of the young in Pakistan, because the party has never given any role to young peope in affairs of government. In this situation, the rise of the former cricketer Imran Khan and his voice against the status quo has emerged as a critical threat to the PML-N powerbase. Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, by making corruption, merit, dynastic politics and youth as the axis of its politics have attracted a large number of youth and women. The PTI has also formed a government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and has brought young men and new faces besides only the Chief Minister, Pervez Khattak, as ministers. This style of governance and politics is claimed to have given shocks after shocks to the PML-N.

In order to cope with this political situation, Nawaz Sharif and his confidantes came up with the idea to give Maryam the top leadership role to counter the PTI, particularly in the Punjab. Several factors have been described by political observers as responsible for pushing Maryam onto the political stage. Firstly, she is a woman and would demonstrate a softer image of the PML-N and the party. Secondly, she is far younger than PTI chief Imran Khan and may be able to appeal to young voters.

But Maryam’s ascendancy on the political front has strained already uneasy intra-family relations. She has brought her father Nawaz Sharif and her uncle Shahbaz Sharif into face to face confrontation. Earlier it was a given in the family that the political legacy of the Sharif family would be carried forward by Hamza Shahbaz, son of Shahbaz. Maryam’s ascendancy has deeply disturbed Shahbaz and son Hamza. The situation got worse when Nawaz, after his ouster, announced that Shahbaz would be the next party nominee for the slot of prime minister. He then took a somersault and announced that his apparently ailing wife, Kusloom Nawaz, would be the next prime minister. However, sensing that this decision might straightaway divide the party and may create a ‘forward block,’ it was decided to make Shahid Khaqan Abbasi the next prime minister.

Nawaz has plans to name Maryam as the prime ministerial candidate in the next national elections. How this plays out after the NAB indictment is still a big questionmark. Maryam is facing charges of forging documentary evidence and may face difficulties in coming out as the next PML-N nominee for the slot of prime minister. It remains to be seen that how Shahbaz and Hamza would react if and when Maryam is made a prime ministerial candidate in the next polls (if they take place). Both Shahbaz and Hamza kept a long distance from the NA 120 by-elections. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Despite Maryam‘s efforts, the party could only win NA 120 by the skin of its teeth. This was despite the fact that Maryam and PML-N made ruthless use of the taxpayer’s money to win the election.

It is a fact though that Maryam has already entered the political arena. This may have divided the party but will it prolong Nawaz Sharif’s political life?

The writer is a political-economy and security analyst and a public policy practitioner.
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