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Pakistan’s Leading Opposition Party Torn Over Role In Anti-Gov’t Protest

FILE: Former Pakistani Prime Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shehbaz Sharif in September 2018.
FILE: Former Pakistani Prime Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shehbaz Sharif in September 2018.

Pakistan’s top opposition political party is apparently torn over whether to pursue an agreement with the government and the country’s powerful military or participate in a planned protest aimed at toppling Prime Minister Imran Khan next month.

For now, the leaders of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are presenting a united front by papering over differences within their ranks, but it is not clear whether they will also mobilize the party’s base to join an allied Islamist political party in a protest march.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), plans to flood Islamabad with hundreds of thousands of protesters in October. He has already announced that PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has called on supporters to join the October protest, which aims to oust Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party from office. “All the opposition political parties will be part of this freedom march,” Rehman told journalists last week.

But Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, his daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz, and other key loyalists are in prison or are being detained for anticorruption investigations. The PML-N stalwarts who remain free are less enthusiastic about the march and have refrained from publicly endorsing it.

Several credible Pakistani journalists have reported that some PML-N leaders favor accepting the government and military overtures, which entail accepting leniency for Sharif in return for his silence and exile. The clique now referred to as the “deal group” by Pakistani commentators argued that such a deal will augur well for the PML-N, whose leaders have faced a government crackdown on dissent. But Sharif reportedly rejected the deal earlier this month.

“It is very clear that a few [PML-N] stalwarts want to sabotage participation in the long march,” says Gul Bukhari, a democracy activist who has closely followed and participated in the PML-N’s protests since Sharif was ousted from office in 2017.

“Now that it is confirmed that Sharif has said the party will participate, the deal group still doesn’t want a unified message to go out to the party workers,” she told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.

The PML-N’s role could decide the fate of the protest. While JUI’s support is mostly limited to the minority provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, the PML-N is still the most popular party in the eastern province of Punjab, which is home to more than 110 million people -- more than half of Pakistan’s 208 million population.

Bukhari says the current split about whether to seek an accommodation with the country’s pretorian military emerged soon after Sharif was removed from office by the country’s Supreme Court for undeclared assets in July 2017.

“The deal group always urged Nawaz Sharif to quit and let the party govern,” she noted. “It is fortunate in a way that the split has now come to light, because the limbo went on for far too long, damaging both democracy and the party.”

Soon after leaving office, Sharif adopted the slogan of “respect the vote” to demand civilian supremacy and an end to the military’s manipulation of politics. But some in his party didn’t like his message.

While he cared for a terminally ill wife in London during the runup to the 2018 elections, his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif emphasized the services and governance the PML-N had delivered during its various stints in power.

Shehbaz became the opposition leader in the new parliament and mostly kept a safe distance from a potential collision course with the military. He is widely considered to be more amenable to an accommodation with the establishment -- a Pakistani euphemism for the military.

According to Islamabad-based Pakistani journalist Talat Hussain, Shehbaz’s son Salman Shehbaz leads the deal group. It was not immediately possible to reach Shehbaz or his son for comment, but most PML-N leaders deny rifts within their party.

Pervaiz Rashid, a former minister and Sharif loyalist, says the party is united behind the former prime minister. “Everyone within our party has a right to their opinion, but once we reach a consensus and it is backed by Nawaz Sharif, then we must all act on it,” he told Gandhara.

Rashid says that during Sharif’ last meeting with PML-N leaders inside a Lahore prison in July, he clearly instructed party leaders to participate in the protests.

“He told us to enthusiastically participate in protests to resolve the issues facing the people of Pakistan,” Rashid recalled. Soon after the mid-July meeting, authorities in Pakistan banned Sharif from meeting party leaders. He is now allowed limited visits by family members only.

Still, Pakistanis are watching to see whether the PML-N mobilizes its base to participate in the planned protests or if its pragmatic camp wins the argument for seeking accommodation.