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Will Shehbaz Sharif Succeed In Repairing PMLN’s Relationship With The Establishment?

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A new political scenario is emerging. Will Shehbaz Sharif ultimately replace Imran Khan? This question is reverberating in the power corridors of the town. We are finding clear signs of a thaw in extremely rough relations between the military establishment and the PML-N. The growing level of comfort between the establishment and the PML-N is not a good sign for fledgling government led by Imran Khan. Recent statements of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Muhammad Zubair, and others of PML-N have been conciliatory. Recent moves on the country’s political chessboard indicate mounting troubles for incumbent Imran Khan and long-awaited relief for Nawaz Sharif and company. The PMLN denies any behind the scenes contacts that could explain this sudden change. Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz were unhappy with what Muhammad Zubair uttered about the rapprochement with the establishment but Shehbaz Sharif continues to follow this path.

Why has the PMLN changed tone and tenor against the military establishment now? Why Nawaz Sharif has toned down his aggressive posture against the establishment? Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shahbaz are on bail. National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is no longer willing to arrest Maryam Nawaz. The inquiry against Captain Safdar is also dormant. There is another reason for the change in the strategy of PML-N. It has realized that in its criticism of the establishment, the PML-N will not acquire power in the near future.

Without discussing what the establishment has been doing in the past or what allegations it is facing now, there seems to be an understanding within the institution that it should not be dragged into controversies on political matters. In a changed mood now the power houses don’t consider Nawaz Sharif as being anti-Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif has always been of the view that Pakistan – India bilateral relationship should  be normalised. For a better future both countries need to bury the hatchet and move forward. This is what Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has hinted.

The military establishment also rejects that it played a role in the cases against the Sharif family. Nawaz Sharif during his rule, always gave respect to the establishment but wanted to keep their role within the constitutional limits. The performance of the PTI government has disappointed masses including its devoted supporters within the establishment. Punjab has been the greatest worry for the power stakeholders. ‘Waseem Akram plus’ Usman Buzdar has failed to deliver and according to some has annoyed the powerful elites.

The emergence of Jehangir Tareen’s group and its open confrontation with Imran Khan led majority faction of ruling party has further weakened the PTI government. It is not just about the sugar hoarding case. After what the country saw following the direct onslaught against top establishment players by Maryam and Nawaz, there is now an apparent retreat by both sides to help things cool down. Shehbaz Sharif could help improve relations between the two sides. In recent days Imran Khan looked increasingly apprehensive. Many of his followers expect a lot from his government but it is difficult for him to deliver in the current circumstances.

The next six months seem very important. The failures of the PTI government have been linked to its patronage by the establishment. The PTI is getting unpopular because of multiple issues of governance, including the economic downturn. And the popularity of the PML-N is on the rise in the densely populated province of Punjab. Recent by-elections have confirmed this.

Those who campaigned for Imran Khan were also known for their close contacts with the military establishment. Such PTI supporters and voters now speak in favour of the PML-N and against the PTI. Jahangir Tareen like-minded group has shown its strength. More than 20 MPAs of Punjab Assembly, 11 in KP and 19 MNAs have promised their support to Jahangir Tareen against Imran Khan. As many as 15 MPAs of PTI have defected in Punjab Assembly and announced a separate entity. This Chcheena group will later on merge itself with Tareen group with its  demands.

PM Imran Khan and CM Usman Buzdaar will either compromise with Jahangir Tareen group, give an NRO or could face the collapse of their respective governments in Islamabad and the Punjab. In fact, it seems that they might have to seek NRO to survive.

In short, Imran Khan will need the goodwill of Jahangir Tareen to survive in power. Whatever path Imran Khan led PTI chooses, it will have to pay a heavy political cost by negating its narrative of transparency and accountability.

In the meantime, Shehbaz Sharif will continue to mend fences and convince his brother for returning to power.

The writer is Islamabad based columnist, political analyst and author of several books. He can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

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