Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, poses for a picture with a supporter at a rally in Lahore, on September 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Drazen Jorgic
Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, poses for a picture with a supporter at a rally in Lahore, on September 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Drazen Jorgic

The stature of a man is tested in the time of challenges and in facing defeats. Richard Nixon, in his farewell speech at the White House, said that many great men had become mediocre just because of their inability to accept defeats and rise above them.

This is now the case with Pakistan’s ruling PML-N party, as Nawaz Sharif is disqualified from office, and from the top tier of leaders to political workers, all have been shocked and dejected by the decision. It is assumed “the party is over” for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and it will be dismantled before the next general elections.

After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif and close aide Chaudhry Nisar were of the view that Nawaz should take a side and let them make a deal with the establishment. He  did not listen to them and resisted his disqualification as, when going against all odds, he is a former ally of the establishment, was in a better position to understand he was taking the highest risk of his life.

If the move did not come off, his politics and his party would be finished. So he needed a narrative that could not only motivate his party supporters but also push the political and nonpolitical opponents to the back foot.

The current anti-establishment narrative, which is popular and holding the party together, was introduced by Maryam Nawaz.

While Shahbaz Sharif is the new president of PML-N, his outdated approach toward the political realities does not make him a popular leader like his older brother Nawaz. He is already facing difficulties in running the party’s affairs, as currently the PML-N is still toeing the line of Nawaz and his daughter Maryam, which will not bring the party into the corridors of power in the next general elections.

Since Shahbaz and his colleagues still think they can get a share of power by bowing down to the invisible forces, this has created a split in the party. There is a group in the party that is traditionally conservative, pro-establishment and likes to remain in the power corridor.

It also thinks that by going against the establishment the ruling PML-N will be divided into factions and most of the electables will leave the party. This makes the battle of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter more difficult, as they are not only facing the opposition and taking on the establishment, they are also dealing with the revolt within the party.

The days ahead will be tough for PML-N and if anyone can save the day for them, it is Maryam Nawaz. She has completely reshaped the party and has already emerged as the new face of the PML-N. The aggressive and uncompromising style of her politics and her ability to draw crowds has made her the most popular leader after Nawaz Sharif.

This is the reason she was being targeted in the“Dawn Leaks,” a story that highlighted a rift between the military and civil leadership in a high-level meeting, and then in the Panama Papers.

So far she has stood her ground because her party is in power and her father has a grip on its affairs. But will she be able to pull the crowds and continue to ride the wave of popularity after her party is out of power? In fact, her leadership ability and resilience will be tested in a week or two when she may be sent to jail or when her party is dismantled and she has to sit in the opposition.

Traditionally PML-N has never enjoyed the support of workers in large numbers; their voters are not used to resisting the establishment and they only show their resentment of or affiliation with the party at election time. But there is something new now, the way Maryam and her father have built the narrative and won the support and sympathy of voters is quite unprecedented and surprising. No one expected the PML-N to have such a support base that would create a buzz throughout the country.

One can doubt the narrative of the PML-N, one can admonish that it is only doing it for political gain, but the fact remains that the masses in Punjab are demanding respect for the vote. This is the reason that Nawaz Sharif has announced that his party will go into the next general election with the slogan “Give respect to my vote.”

This slogan was created by Maryam Nawaz, and if the PML-N go with this narrative in the elections it will be a clear signal that she will be the actual force and face of the PML-N in the times to come.

If Maryam and her father Nawaz Sharif are sent to jail and the PML-N has to fight elections without them being the faces, it will not then be possible for Shahbaz Sharif and his colleagues to win even from the province of Punjab. There is, however, also a doubt that even in the presence of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam, the PML-N will never be allowed to win the elections and come back to power, but with Maryam or her father being the face, PML-N still stands a chance.

It is almost impossible to rig the ballot on polling day in the general elections or to buy and pressure voters as was done during the Senate elections. The only way to rig elections is to dismantle political parties, harass them through the  National Accountability Bureau and damage their credibility through the mainstream media with the effective use of propaganda.

So if the elections are to be held, it will be a tough battle and the Maryam factor will surely decide the outcome of the PML-N. If she is allowed to run the campaign, she will garner a much larger support base across the country, and if she is put behind bars a wave of sympathy may emerge that will prove crucial to the survival of the party and keeping its vote bank intact.

With Shahbaz and his colleagues, the PML-N may survive and get a share of the power but it will never again be as strong as it was under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif.

If the PML-N has to survive as it did in the era of Pervez Musharraf, then an anti-establishment and progressive Maryam needs to be the head of the party. If it decides to survive like the Pakistan Peoples Party and bend before the invisible forces it will be turned back to the decade of the 1990s when it was known as a puppet of the establishment.

The choice is between a compromising and power-hungry party that deals with the establishment under the leadership of Shahbaz Sharif or a populist, progressive and pro-democratic force that actually wants to win power through the support and votes of the masses. That is a decision that has to be made very soon, as time is running out.

If the “Maryam factor” prevails, Pakistan will see a genuine pro-democratic and anti-establishment party from the province of Punjab for the very first time in the political history of the country and the first mainstream party whose slogan will be the respect of the vote and civilian supremacy in elections.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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