Will the Pakistan Muslim League-N rise again?

Will the Pakistan Muslim League-N rise again?


With more than a century of history behind it, the Muslim League led the struggle for Muslim rights in British India, and for that it must be given credit for winning the case for Pakistan. It rode on the idea of Muslim consensus and the demand for a separate country. Like every other nationalist party leading an independence movement, the League had within its fold people who differed on many things.
Eventually, ethnic divisions, personal political ambitions of leaders, questions related to the distribution of power, and the political framework — the constitution — undermined unity and led to instability. The power shifted away from the party to the bureaucratic elites who had managed the vast British Indian empire. They had administrative experience and had mastered the art of political manipulation.
The ascending bureaucratic players had no popular base, so they had to lay with the League factions to maintain a political façade of ‘democracy’, while exercising real power behind the scenes. From the very beginning, after the death of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the assassination of the first prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, the League split along many lines. As the servants of the British, they knew the importance of security forces in dealing with crises and brought the military commander-in-chief into their power play. The military very quickly realized that it had both power and international backing, and stepped in to finally take over the country in 1958.
Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator who served for over ten years, banned many politicians from taking part in politics. After him, General Zia-ul-Haq didn’t favor party politics and held party-less elections in 1985. 
Before Zia’s death however, Mian Nawaz Sharif, then Chief Minister of Pakistan’s largest province Punjab, got himself fraudulently elected as the Muslim League president through a violent coup at the party convention. With the Muslim League majority in Parliament, the party later provided a ready-made elite network to Mr. Sharif to assume national stature and the leadership of the party.

As a party with history that is embedded in the very creation of Pakistan, the Muslim League has survived all kinds of crises, and will do so again. The big question is whether or not the political dynasty of the Sharifs will be able to retain a strong hold over the party.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The post-Zia democratic transition provided Sharif a huge political advantage. He still had the leadership of the League with its long history and the solid backing of the security establishment, which didn’t trust the emerging, popular, and fiery Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP). The Muslim League manipulated the 1988 elections and helped Mr. Sharif retain power as Punjab’s chief minister. Working with the League’s elite network of political families in Punjab, and later from other parts of the countries, Sharif won the third post-Zia election in 1997 with a two-third majority, which remains a record of political strength.
Sharif’s emergence from a protégé of the security establishment to a national leader, to becoming Prime Minister three times speaks of his political rise, his success and skills in keeping a dominant faction of Punjab’s political elites together. But there is another side of his character— his inability to work with others. He is the only Prime Minister of the country who has removed three army chiefs, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and an elected president of the country. In October 1999, Sharif’s attempt at removing General Musharraf backfired, resulting in a military takeover, imprisonment, and exile.
And still, he made a comeback — winning Punjab in the 2008 elections and then the majority at the center in the 2013 elections. Within a few years, he was locked in confrontation with the military over a host of issues. Finally, after the Panama papers leaked an undeniable trail of corruption, he lost the office of Prime Minister, and eventually the party lost the 2018 elections to Imran Khan’s new party. 
As a party with history that is embedded in the very creation of Pakistan, the Muslim League has survived all kinds of crises, and will do so again. The big question is whether or not the political dynasty of the Sharifs will be able to retain a strong hold over the party. 
For its part, the party faces two serious problems. One, the party’s dynastic character makes it too dependent on family elders, who are ill, old and facing serious corruption charges. Their successors might not be able to handle the elite network in a changed national political environment. Second, the party has functioned through the patronage networks of power, which are no longer available. This causes power elites to change political loyalties.
— Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais

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