The PML-N’s change of tack By Zahid Hussain

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THE thunder has gone with the change in narrative. It’s no more the military leadership that is the main nemesis. There’s no more talk of storming the citadel. It’s back to normal politics with an eye on the next elections. With the return of the uncle, the niece has taken a back seat. There has been a tangible shift in PML-N politics.

From former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s and his daughter Maryam Nawaz’s relentless attack on the military leadership and their insistence on bringing down the entire system it’s now the politics of reconciliation. While attacks on the PTI government continue, there is no more talk of destroying the edifice. With the return of Shehbaz Sharif there is a visible change in that approach.

This change in the PML-N’s strategy seemed inevitable after the collapse of the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) and its failure to bring down the government through a mass movement. A major reason for the fragmentation of the motley alliance was the hard-line position taken by Maryam Nawaz who had become the main face of the party in the absence of her uncle and her cousin Hamza Shehbaz.

Undoubtedly, widely perceived as the heiress of the Sharif political dynasty, she revitalised the party but her politics lacked maturity. It was a dire miscalculation both on the part of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter that their strong anti-establishment narrative would lead to a mass uprising against hybrid rule. Not only did the strategy fail to bring down the government, it also divided the opposition.

Shehbaz Sharif’s release on bail gave further impetus to the change of direction.

It’s apparent that the PML-N’s push for resignation from the national and provincial assemblies not only led to the break-up of the PDM but also widened the divide within its own ranks. In fact, the decision to participate in the Senate elections as well in the by-elections earned the party and the opposition far greater political dividends.

The clean sweep by the opposition dealt a far greater blow to the PTI government. Perhaps, that also strengthened the thinking in the PML-N that it would be better to focus more on electoral politics rather than try and bring down the system. There is, however, also a strong argument that perhaps the electoral victory would not have been possible without the mass mobilisation under the PDM.

Ironically, the electoral competition further widened the cleavage between the PML-N and PPP. A more mature PML-N leadership could have dealt with the differences more prudently and saved the PDM from falling apart. In fact, the PML-N’s change of tack became imperative after the party’s failure to stage a powerful show of strength during the PDM’s rally in Lahore, its political stronghold, last December.

For the PML-N leadership, it was to be a decisive stage in the movement to oust the government. Some of the party leaders thought that a strong show of strength in Punjab’s capital could also neutralise the security establishment. But a low turnout blunted the impact. The deadline of Dec 31 for the government to step down also proved to be a major tactical mistake, raising questions about the party’s strategy. The Lahore debacle also exposed the differences within PML-N ranks and widened the fault lines in the opposition alliance.

In a desperate attempt some of the PDM parties, particularly the PML-N, pressed for quitting parliament. But the move could not materialise because of the PPP’s opposition. The Lahore failure and the split in the PDM provided the PTI government critical political space. Shehbaz Sharif’s detention seemed to have given a free hand to Maryam.

But it was obvious that despite her growing popular appeal and ability to draw large crowds her strategy to bring down the government through a mass movement was not working. Meanwhile, success in the by-elections strengthened the argument within the party in favour of a more prudent approach.

There has been a growing sense of confidence within party ranks that they could easily sweep the next elections in Punjab and return to power without disrupting the system. For many among the PML-N leadership, it was imperative to review the anti-establishment policy. The rhetoric is already down and some of the party leaders have openly been advocating for mending fences with the military leadership in order to fully focus on the struggle against the PTI government.

Shehbaz Sharif’s release on bail gave further impetus to the change of direction. Although the overall leadership of the party still lies with Nawaz Sharif, the younger brother is now fully in charge on the ground. The tone is markedly different. Shehbaz Sharif has also moved to reunite the PDM by reaching out to the PPP and ANP. The two parties were forced out from the alliance over their differences with the PML-N regarding the opposition’s strategy. It may not be easy for them to return to the fold after the acrimonious parting of ways but they can cooperate on issues in parliament.

For sure, the new tone together with the return of Shehbaz Sharif does not mean a split in the party. Despite the inner party struggle, there is no possibility of fragmentation. In some strange way, both the narratives work well with the party members when they prepare to go for elections. It is Nawaz Sharif and his daughter who would get them the votes but they would like Shehbaz Sharif’s non-confrontationist approach to get back in power.

It is apparent that the political parties are already in an election frame of mind. With the pathetic performance of the PTI government particularly in Punjab, the PML-N appears much more confident about its success. The growing fissures within the ranks of the PTI seem to have further boosted the party’s morale. The lowering of anti-establishment rhetoric is certainly a part of the PML-N’s election strategy that could allow it to return to power. But there is still a long way to go before the next polls and there are political uncertainties along the way.

The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.