KARACHI: The landmark July 6 verdict sent deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif to serve 10 years, his daughter Maryam to seven and his son-in-law to two years imprisonment in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail. The verdict not only swept Nawaz but the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in its entirety off its feet.

The party, which enjoyed a simple majority at the centre and in the Punjab, has suffered back to back setbacks in the recent past.

In July 2017, Nawaz was sent home after the apex court unanimously issued a ruling that disqualified the then PM due to his failure to disclose his “un-withdrawn receivables, constituting assets” in his nomination papers filed ahead of the 2013 general elections.

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This judgment came as a major blow to the ruling family, which further led to filing of three different references against Nawaz and members of his family in connection with the Panama Papers leak.

Among other challenges, a huge question mark hung over the PML-N: Who will now spearhead the party?

Months following this development and days leading up the general elections 2018, the party confronted numerous obstacles. In April, PML-N concerted a new strategy to contain instability by letting three-term chief minister Shehbaz Sharif be the front-man.

With both Nawaz and Maryam convicted and unable to contest elections, the three-term Punjab chief minister was the obvious choice to lead the party.

Playing ‘good cop bad cop’

Shehbaz, the recently named PML-N president, is contesting upcoming polls from three provincial and four national assembly constituencies. He would emerge as top runner for the next prime minister if his party bags substantial number of seats in the Punjab alone.

In 2013 elections, he had won seats from NA-129, PP-159 and PP-247.

According to senior political analyst Mazhar Abbas, securing a majority in the Punjab would mean that Shehbaz’s narrative of public service and administration wasn’t ‘weak’ after all. “Both brothers have been reading their narratives aloud; Nawaz chanting ‘Vote ko izzat do’ (respect the vote) whereas Shehbaz repeating ‘Khidmat ko vote do’ (vote for services).”

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Abbas speculated that if Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Imran Khan comes to power and scrutinises the PML-N and Shehbaz, this will reveal how Nawaz’s imprisonment truly impacted his younger brother. “In the long run, however, it definitely means more power for Shehbaz but much of it will be determined over what happens in the next couple of years,” Abbas added.

He was of the opinion that if Maryam is not provided relief through the appeals filed in the high courts, Shehbaz’s narrative will steer the course of the party. “If Maryam is relieved, she will [obviously] play a crucial role, it would only be smart for her to not pick rows with Shehbaz or his son Hamza and instead play the good cop, bad cop.”

Whose narrative is more powerful of the two Sharifs?

The current scenario is also a challenge among the PML-N ranks. Political analyst Zarrar Khuhro remarked

that the party has several camps within as well. “Part of them believe that we need to focus on building roads and still go confrontational; and the other half is focusing on the election,” he said, adding that a faction of the party even questioned as to why all PML-N workers didn’t go all-out when Nawaz returned home.

The two brothers have always operated as an alliance under the Sharif dynasty. Shehbaz, with close aide Chaudhry Nisar at his side, has always assumed the role of a mediator between the elder brother and the establishment. “Shehbaz wouldn’t anger the establishment even now and would continue to focus on public service, whereas Nawaz’s physical presence drives the campaign,” Khuhro commented.

In the 1990s, according to Abbas, liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) supporters were in favour of the ‘business’ driven PML-N. “According to these liberals, a ‘business minded, capitalist’ government could push liberal narratives forward which earned Sharifs the label of ‘urbanised politicians’,” the senior analyst added.

Shehbaz has constructed his entire political campaign and narrative on development and public service, which has strengthened its on-ground presence and popularity, especially in home-ground Lahore.

Which one of the two is more powerful shall only be determined post the July 25 polls.

Shehbaz Sharif to start election campaign from Karachi

What’s next for Shehbaz?

Professor and political expert Rasool Baksh Rais predicted that “keeping the party unified, consolidating the legacy of Nawaz, and reconciling and accommodating interests of establishment” will be key battles for the PML-N president to fight in months to come.

“He mediated between establishment and Nawaz in the past but ‘can he do it now’ is the question.”

Rais also highlighted that the PML-N leadership benefited from Shehbaz’s contributions to the province. Even after being rendered ineffective following the 2017 disqualification, Nawaz focused on strengthening his daughter and thereafter his own legacy. “Therefore Shehbaz isn’t Nawaz’s first choice.”

If the party is to form a government at the centre or in the province, prospects for Shehbaz appear bright. However, Khuhro stated that while results are highly speculative at this point, the prospects for the party shall prevail “unless some old cases are rehashed against Shehbaz”.