The 2013 election campaign marked a new low in Pakistan’s political discourse. While personal attacks have been a standard in the country since its very foundation—there are reports of Pakistan Peoples Party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto verbally attacking lawmakers of then-East Pakistan and of current P.M. Nawaz Sharif calling rival Benazir Bhutto a ‘kaafir’ in the ‘90s—the personal enmity has taken on new volume and fervor with the rise of opposition parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Amidst this acrimony, P.M. Sharif—now in his third tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan—has exercised restraint and avoided personally abusing his chief rival Imran Khan or members of the PPP. This is a new development. Between 2008 and 2013, when the PPP was in power, Sharif was quick to target his partners in the Charter of Democracy. His change of heart, say Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) insiders, is a byproduct of his belief that the head of state must not indulge in divisive politics—even as his party stalwarts continue to attack Khan, PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari and other members of various opposition parties.
During the PTI’s 2014 dharna, it was commonplace for the opposition party and its leadership to personally attack Sharif and his family from atop the container that housed them for four months. From attacking his masculinity to his intellect, nothing was off-limits. While members of the PMLN, most notably senior ministers Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Muhammad Asif, were no less vocal in their attacks on the PTI—often implying that Khan abused drugs—Sharif stayed noticeably silent, prompting several media pundits to claim he was running scared and hiding behind his party workers. Not so, say PMLN workers.
“We have been waiting for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to respond to Imran Khan and others in likeminded language, but we appreciate that he has sent a clear message to his rivals that he is no longer interested in stooping to their level to earn ‘points’,” says Pervez, a senior political worker. “Imran Khan is only earning a bad name for himself and his party by resorting to personal attacks,” says another worker, Zahid Ali, “we will prove him wrong by winning the polls in 2018. That will be our retaliation.”
Change of mindset
Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, also admits that she has noticed a change in her father’s attitude toward political rivals during his current administration. “He has changed, which has come as a surprise to many. Over the past 17 years, he has become more calm and tries to listen to his detractors instead of lashing out at them,” she told Newsweek. “He doesn’t even speak poorly of his rivals within the family anymore.” Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan, special adviser to the prime minister, agrees.
“His nature has changed. He no longer gets angry and even encourages his party leaders to show restraint when responding to political rivals,” he says. “When party workers complain to him about the rude attitudes of rival politicians, he just smiles and tells them to let them be: ‘They [opposition politicians] have to feel like they’re accomplishing something. Even if it is just criticism of our policies,’” he quoted the premier as saying.
Sharif’s policies of tolerance extend beyond his behavior toward rivals and encompass his governance as well. Despite being ousted from office in 1999 by then-military chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, he has tried to build lasting ties with military officials in his current administration. Both former Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif and current Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa enjoy good ties with Sharif. Similarly, his engagements with the judiciary have also improved. In 1997, a PMLN mob infamously stormed the Supreme Court, which was conducting hearings into a contempt of court petition against Sharif. By contrast today, Sharif has responded to the Panama Papers scandal by working within the law to argue his defense. As a result of his support of the lawyers’ movement, Sharif now has a greater appreciation of the legal community and respects the judiciary’s authority, say senior PMLN leaders. Political stability is of far greater importance to Sharif than his own hold on power, they add.
“The prime minister believes his job is to bring prosperity to the people of Pakistan,” says Maryam Nawaz Sharif. “He is willing to work with anyone who can help him in this goal—even Imran Khan. If he has concrete policies, my father would be eager to listen to them and bring them before Parliament.” Special assistant to the prime minister, Dr. Musadik Malik, agrees, saying it is tragic that so-called ‘revolutionaries’ are trying to derail democracy in Pakistan to assume power instead of seeking to strengthen it. “How long must Pakistan and its elected prime minister pay for being elected into power by their constituents?”
Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan also took insult at the politics of agitation indulged in by opposition parties. “The prime minister has advocated tolerance at all levels,” he claims, “People see the unethical language used by opposition politicians every day on TV. It doesn’t take much for them to realize who is trying to mislead them and who is working to secure their future.”
Malik maintains that it is unfair to claim the PMLN, and by extension P.M. Sharif, is not living up to its electoral campaign. “The prime minister promised to root out terrorism and despite the recent burst of violence, we have noticed a marked decrease in terror attacks nationwide,” he says. “He also promised the government would improve the economy and there is international support that the country is on the right track. What more do our political opponents need?”
Malik admitted that it was “shameful” for the PMLN that it had failed in uniting the various political parties on a single platform for major national issues, but noted that it was difficult to do so if rival parties chose to boycott all-party conferences or skip Parliament sessions.
The views of PMLN stalwarts are also reflected among the public. Mohsin Khan, a student in Peshawar, says the PMLN regime must be applauded for raising the issue of FATA reforms. “The situation in Karachi and Pakistan as a whole has improved under the PMLN administration. We have to acknowledge this,” he added. Another Peshawar resident wondered why Imran Khan was in such a rush to assume power. “Why can’t he wait to be elected in 2018? If he genuinely believes that he is fated to come into power, then what’s his hurry?” asked Raheem Ullah Shah.
Despite Sharif’s personal “evolution” and increased focus on governance over politicking, critics maintain that he represents the old guard who are no longer relevant in the new world order preached by the PTI. Social media is rife with PPP and PTI supporters who are quick to jump on inconsistencies in his statements and the incongruence of advocating a “liberal” Pakistan while maintaining political alliances with rightwing groups. They demand Sharif walk the talk and break ties with Islamist parties and take action against militant groups that have been seen cozying up to senior government officials, including interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. But PMLN leaders dismiss these calls for change as eyewash and say Sharif’s personal evolution is proof that real change can only come from within. According to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Amir Muqam, Imran Khan has repeatedly tried to bait Sharif and failed each and every time. “It’s a big change if a politician realizes the needs of their nation and works to fulfill them. That is who Nawaz Sharif is now. The Pakistani nation will fully realize this ahead of the 2018 elections.”