May Issue 2013
The Tiger Roars Back
The Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, is the second largest party in Pakistan. But with its conservative, centre-right policies, it bears little resemblance to the original Pakistan Muslim League that it shares its name with. The All-India Muslim League, headed by Jinnah, was renamed the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) after Partition. The party failed to retain popularity across East and West Pakistan, and the final blow came in 1958, when military dictator Ayub Khan banned all political parties. With the help of the establishment, the party was revived once again for the 1970 general elections, in which it fared rather poorly, but it did find a loyal support base in the Punjab.
In 1976, Nawaz Sharif joined the Pakistan Muslim League and he staunchly supported military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. Zia propped up Sharif as a PML leader to counter the PPP. Following the non-party 1985 elections which brought Mohammed Khan Junejo to power as Prime Minister, Nawaz first served as finance minister and then chief minister of the Punjab. By the time of Zia’s assassination in 1988, the PML had split into two factions, one led by Nawaz Sharif and the other by Mohammed Khan Junejo, a Muslim League leader from Sindh who had had a falling out with Zia when he began to assert himself as prime minister. Sharif enjoyed close ties with the military bureaucracy and with their support, the PML joined hands with various religious parties to counter the PPP, now headed by Benazir Bhutto, in the upcoming elections. This alliance, called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, also included the Awami National League and the Jamaat-e-Islami, but the PML accounted for nearly 80% of its electoral candidates. However, the PPP emerged victorious and with Benazir becoming prime minister, Sharif became leader of opposition. But Benazir remained in power only for two years and she was dismissed in 1990 by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. By this time Sharif was head of the newly founded PML-N and his close ties with the army finally paid off as he became prime minister. He reverted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation policies and various industries and government banks were privatised during his term. He also introduced a Shariat Bill, which sought to interpret laws in compliance with Islamic teachings. However, Sharif shared a similar fate as Benazir’s: in 1993 he was dismissed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan on charges of corruption and nepotism. 1993 saw Benazir return to power as prime minister, while Nawaz Sharif once again became leader of opposition.
But Benazir was dismissed for the second time by then President Farooq Leghari and in the 1997 general elections, the PML-N won 137 seats to PPP’s 18. It was a landslide victory for a party which had until then mainly the Punjab to count as its political stronghold. Back as prime minister, Sharif immediately stripped the president of the powers granted under article 58(b) of the constitution, which had transformed Pakistan’s government from a parliamentary system to a semi-presidential one. The president could now no longer dismiss the prime minister and later that year, Leghari resigned as president due to differences with Nawaz Sharif. It was during his term that Pakistan carried out its first nuclear tests in 1998 and he appointed Musharraf as chief of army staff. Sharif had always maintained close ties with the establishment but after the disastrous Kargil war, he found Musharraf to be a political liability. He wanted to replace Musharraf as COAS, but a bloodless coup by the army in 1999 saw his own term cut short instead. He was exiled to Saudi Arabia and did not return to Pakistan until 2007.
He was banned from participating in the 2008 elections but his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif contested and went on to become chief minister of the Punjab and the PML-N emerged as the largest opposition party in the National Assembly. The party’s main support base has been the Punjab, but with frequent gas and power outages in the last five years and with the brothers’ alleged ties with banned outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the party has faced censure. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, to whom the party lost its longtime member Javed Hashmi, has also been campaigning heavily in the Punjab and could perhaps swing some former PML-N voters in its direction. Talks with the Jamaat-e-Islami over seat adjustment are currently at a stalemate and negotiations with the Balochistan National Party-Mengal have outright failed. These shortcomings aside, the PML-N has been trying to win the hearts, and votes, of the people by distributing laptops to students, creating Daanish schools for underprivileged children and introducing a metro-bus system in Lahore. And unlike the 2008 elections, this time round party leader Nawaz Sharif will also be contesting the polls.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.