The daughter of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz. Photo: AFP
Maryam Nawaz. Photo: AFP

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI-led government has completed its first 100 days in power. Despite the hype, Khan and his team generated with their promise to bring visible changes to the economic and governance front in the first 100 days, they have failed to deliver.

In spite of the lackluster performance and a visionless approach by the government led by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, it actually does not face any threat from the weak opposition. The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), seems quite inept at posing any kind of threat to PTI. It has not been able to expose the government’s mistakes and blunders, nor has it capitalized on the weakness of PTI in addressing the country’s economic woes. The current opposition seems lifeless without the presence of Maryam Nawaz.

She was able to turn  PML-N into a real populist political party that posed a great threat to PTI and the masters of the political chessboard – the military establishment. Her unconventional style of firebrand politics and indomitable will to fight against all the odds proved helpful for the PML-N as it struggled to survive as a political entity despite the enmity of the mighty establishment.

She saved the day for her father, Nawaz Sharif, and their party by creating a strong anti-establishment narrative. Though the PML-N lost the general elections in July, it still managed to win around 63 National Assembly seats, which was a big achievement given the circumstances, as the establishment was working around the clock to dismantle the party.

However, since her release from jail, she has gone behind the scenes and become politically inactive. Her absence can be seen in the fact that the PML-N has been unsuccessful in developing a strong narrative against its main rivals PTI and the establishment. Instead, it seems like the PML-N is just trying to survive by mending fences with the establishment.

The silence of Nawaz Sharif and the ineffective opposition from the PML-N in the National Assembly has raised many questions regarding the future political narrative of the party. The main question is whether there was a quiet deal between Sharif and the invisible forces to remain silent and not to criticize the establishment or the judiciary and in return, he and his daughter Maryam would not have to remain behind bars.

If Sharif has adopted the strategy of “live another day,” then for a long time the PML-N will not pose any threat to the establishment

If Sharif has adopted the strategy of “live another day,” then for a long time the PML-N will not pose any threat to the establishment and its ally PTI. Knowing Sharif’s style of politics, it seems likely that he will choose to wait for the right time to strike back, taking on his opponents one by one. Sharif never forgives his political and invisible opponents, which is evident from his political record.

He charged his opponent General Pervez Musharraf with treason and in the 1990s he forced the establishment’s favorite man, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, to resign from the post of president of Pakistan. When he was thrown out of office in 1999 through a military coup by army chief Musharraf, Sharif waited for the right time to make a strong comeback.

However, this time the proposition is different; Sharif is old and cannot wait for a long time in the hope that things will get better. The narrative created by Maryam Nawaz against the establishment has virtually closed the doors for her father and his party to again come to power, as for the very first time in recent history the establishment has had a tough time dealing with a narrative that is still popular and that challenges its hegemony over state affairs.

So Sharif needs to decide whether he will sit and watch the establishment control the political chessboard or he will let Maryam, the only genuine anti-establishment leader of recent times, take control of the PML-N.

Maryam’s persona and her ability to pull crowds in public gatherings could still revive the PML-N, and she could pose a great challenge to the visionless government led by PTI and the establishment. Perhaps many critics will not agree with this point, as an anti-establishment political leader has never been accepted by the invisible forces in Pakistan, but the reality on the ground is changing quickly.

The PML-N fought the last elections on the narrative of “respect the vote,” which was created by Maryam Nawaz. Never in history had a major political party in Pakistan fought an election with an anti-establishment narrative. Though the PML-N lost the elections, it took massive pre-poll and election-day rigging to keep it away from power.

If the elections had been held in a free and fair way, Maryam’s narrative could have prevailed easily – perhaps she was very close to winning the battle for civilian supremacy for the very first time in the history of the country. Perhaps challenging the invisible forces and posing great threats to their authority over elected governments is itself a great victory for Maryam Nawaz.

Since Sharif’s PML-N has never been a pure anti-establishment political party, it finds itself in a very awkward situation, as many of its stalwarts still believe in mending fences with the establishment in order to create an opportunity to grab power in the future with the nod of the establishment.

However, this lackluster approach has clearly disappointed the educated and urban middle-class supporters of PML-N as they were expecting a strong opposition by the party against the PTI-led government and the establishment. Hamza Shahbaz, the son of Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif has clearly been unsuccessful in filling the void created by the absence of Maryam Nawaz, and it seems like the PML-N is gradually making a U-turn from its anti-establishment narrative.

If the PML-N does not want to lose more political space then it needs to bring Maryam back into politics, as she seems to be the only one in the party who is capable of standing against the odds. Otherwise, all the state machinery working against it and around-the-clock propaganda will dent the PML-N badly and Khan’s PTI will keep gaining ground with the help of the establishment.

It is time for the PML-N to get out of its comfort zone and again pose a serious challenge to PTI and the establishment by bringing Maryam Nawaz back into politics.

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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