June Issue 2019
N-gulfed by Accountability
On May 25, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) President, Shehbaz Sharif, was given a 15-day exemption from appearing in the accountability court for the Ashiana Housing and Ramzan Sugar Mills hearing. The exemption was granted after Sharif’s counsel told the court that his client needed to get a test done in London on June 7.
Shehbaz had left for London on April 10, after the Lahore High Court ordered that his name be removed from the Exit Control List (ECL). Prior to his departure for London, Shehbaz tweeted: “Because of judicial grace exercised by [the] Honourable courts, I am now on bail and my name has been taken off the ECL. In these circumstances, I am going to take a quick visit to London to see my grandchildren & go through my own medical check up and return soon IA! [sic]”
The PML-N president’s exit prompted speculation that he might be leaving for good after being engulfed by accountability cases. These claims snowballed after he stepped down as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman, on May 2.
Sharif was replaced as the PAC chairman, by Rana Tanvir and the Parliamentary Leader, by Khawaja Asif – part of the PML-N’s restructuring, which saw former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi being appointed the party’s Senior Vice President, and Maryam Nawaz one of 16 Vice Presidents, which also included Shehbaz’s son and the Opposition Leader in the Punjab Assembly, Hamza Shehbaz.
Nawaz Sharif, meanwhile, returned to Kot Lakhpat Jail around midnight on May 7, following the culmination of his six-week bail in the Al-Azizia Steel Mills case. Nawaz was driven to the jail by Hamza Sharif, in the company of Maryam Nawaz, with senior leaders Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Khawaja Asif, also part of the PML-N entourage that saw the party supremo off.
On May 27, two days after Shehbaz was given a 15-day exemption from court, Nawaz was interrogated by officials of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at Kot Lakhpat Jail. Nawaz, already serving a seven-year sentence in the Al-Azizia Steel Mills corruption reference, was questioned over the misuse of authority in purchasing 33 high-security vehicles during his time as prime minister.
With Nawaz in jail, and Shehbaz in London, rumours of a political rift between the two brothers and their camps have resurfaced, with question marks being raised over the party’s future. There has been noise over Shehbaz having been allowed to leave as part of a ‘deal’ with the powers that be. PML-N insiders, however, maintain that the party is still united under the leadership of its supremo, Nawaz.
“Our critics have long maintained that few people shouldn’t hold multiple positions; that’s why we have restructured the party,” says PML-N leader and former special assistant to the prime minister, Musadik Malik.
“Shehbaz Sharif is unwell and has hence [left for London]. Also, he has had to spend most of his time in Lahore, owing to the NAB cases. Therefore, for the Parliament to perform better, the positions of the PAC chairman, parliamentary leader and the opposition leader have been separated,” he adds.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, Nabeel Gabol, reveals that his party wasn’t consulted before the PML-N decided to change the PAC chairman. “It was the PML-N’s decision,” he says. “But it was their slot as the major opposition party. So it was their right, which is why we didn’t raise any objections.” Gabol continues, “However, what we do know is [that] there is a rift within the PML-N. A group has been created within the party that isn’t happy with the decisions of Shehbaz Sharif or Nawaz Sharif. And with Shehbaz unlikely to come back any time soon, and Nawaz in jail, the rift will only increase.”
The ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) has been quick to play up the divides within the PML-N as well. At a press conference in Multan, after the PML-N announced its restructuring, Foreign Minister and senior PTI leader, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, pointed at the “sudden revamp” within the PML-N as a move that “shocked” the party itself.
“Many feel hard done by [after the party’s restructuring],” said Qureshi. “It’s just a small Gang of Four – some call it Gang of Five – that is taking all the decisions and the party leadership and those party members in the parliament are completely clueless about it,” he added.
When all its opponents and critics were anticipating an imminent collapse of the PML-N in the aftermath of its revamp, the party decided to join hands with the PPP, in an attempt to demonstrate that the party was united on external issues as well as internal ones.
On May 20, PPP Chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and Co-Chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, hosted an Iftar for senior PML-N leaders, including Maryam Nawaz, Hamza Shehbaz, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ayaz Sadiq. The opposition gathering also included Qaumi Watan Party’s (QWP’s) Aftab Khan Sherpao, and Mohsin Dawar from the Pashtoon Tahaffuz Movement (PTM).
With the PML-N and PPP leadership talking up their meeting after the Iftar, the opposition is looking to cash in on the economic turmoil in the country. As the rupee continued its crash in Ramazan, and inflation surged, sources within the PML-N revealed that the party is planning to agitate on the streets after Eid-ul-Fitr.
“Given the performance of the government and the tall claims [it] had earlier made, [it has] been badly exposed now. Once a movement against the government starts, it can be predicted that [its] own performance will suffice in taking [it] down,” says senior PML-N leader and former Punjab government spokesperson, Malik Ahmed Khan, echoing the claims that Maryam Nawaz had made while addressing party activists in Bahawalpur on May 22.
“The government won’t be able to deal with the anger of the masses and their agitation,” he adds. “[The PTI’s] governance is terrible and so is their politics. And keeping these factors in mind, it’s easy to predict that the government will collapse.”