As rivals fade into the background, two contrasting figures from Pakistan’s foremost political parties are vying for influence, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai

An anecdote often related by bloggers in Pakistan goes something like this: Nawaz Sharif managed to become the country’s prime minister three times using whatever tactics at his disposal while his main political rival, Imran Khan, tried to match him by marrying thrice as he has little chance of becoming the premier.

There is some truth in this. Nawaz Sharif won the 2013 general election and was elected prime minister of Pakistan for an unprecedented third time. However, he was unable to complete his five-year term when the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified him from holding office last year on corruption charges. He is now fighting for his political survival by waging a legal battle to clear his name and mobilising the support of the people through public meetings all over the country.

As for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, he entered politics in April 1996 when he launched his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice. After remaining on the political fringes for a long time and losing elections, he found success in the 2013 general election when his party emerged as the second biggest in the country, after the winner, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The PTI also managed to form a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan has made no secret of his ambition to become Pakistan’s prime minister and the next election, scheduled to be held in July-August this year, is being mentioned as his golden opportunity to win because Nawaz Sharif cannot stand in the polls.

Khan has made no secret of his ambition to become Pakistan’s prime minister

However, Imran Khan’s personal life often gets more media coverage than his politics. Being a public figure since his cricketing days, when he earned fame as an all-rounder and captained Pakistan to a World Cup win in 1992, his life has been under constant scrutiny. His romances have been discussed exhaustively and his three marriages, including two failed ones, are analysed to death. His recent third marriage, at the age of 66, attracted derogatory, laudatory andalso funny comments, depending on the commentators’ political orientation. His third wife, Bushra Maneka – 50 years old and the mother of five grown-up children – separated from her first husband due to reasons that are unclear. In fact, Imran Khan came into contact with her as she is said to be a spiritual figure. She initially became a ‘pir’ or ‘pirnee’ (spiritual guide) to the PTI leader and the eventually decided to tie the knot.

Imran Khan’s first wife was British socialite Jemima Goldsmith, who became Jemima Khan when she married him in 1995. The marriage between the pretty girl from a wealthy British family and the dashing ethnic Pakhtun cricketer from Pakistan lasted for more than nine years. Then, in 2015 Imran fell for the TV anchor Reham Khan, but this marriage fell apart after only 10 months. Bloggers have been joyfully pointing out that Imran Khan went overseas to play cricket and came back with a ‘gori’ (white woman) who became his wife. Then they remarked that Imran Khan went to give an interview to an anchorperson and brought her home as a bride. Now they are saying that he went to seek spiritual guidance, and ended up bringinghis guide back as his latest wife.

While Imran Khan is trying to settle down with his third wife in his vast villa spread over 300 kanals of land in Banigala in Islamabad, his foe Nawaz Sharif is getting deeper into all sorts of trouble. The deposed prime minister’s woes have continued as the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a surprising recent ruling, debarred him from heading the ruling PML-N which carries his name, having earlier forced him to step down as premier. He was accused of failing to declare a monthly income of around $2,700 from a company owned by his son in Dubai. Though critics pointed out that this wasn’t a major lapse and not serious enough to warrant the disqualification of an elected prime minister, there were other allegations against him of misuse of power and corrupt practices. These cases are now being heard by the Accountability Court.

HEIR APPARENT: Sharif's daughter Maryam Nawaz is being groomed as his successor
HEIR APPARENT: Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz is being groomed as his successor

Nawaz Sharif’s ongoing political campaign is aimed at spreading his message and preparing the ground for a victory by his party, the PML-N, in Pakistan’s next general election in the summer. Despite his disqualification by the Supreme Court, a subsequent law passed by the Parliament due to the PML-N’s majority allowed Nawaz Sharif to remain the head of the ruling party. This law has now been struck down by the Supreme Court, raising questions as to whether it is Parliament or the Supreme Court which is supreme. To make matters worse for Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N, the apex court ruled that all steps taken and orders passed by Nawaz Sharif were null and void. This raised questions about the candidates chosen by Nawaz Sharif for the role of party president for the Senate elections being held on March 3. The PML-N was hoping to obtain a bigger share of the seats and for the first time take control of the Senate. It is not clear if the Senate polls will be held as scheduled or if new nomination papers from the candidates will be invited.

The decision has triggered uncertainty. Speculation is rife because the Supreme Court in its judgement didnot touchon the issue of the upcoming Senate polls. This matter will have to be clarified sooner rather than later as the parties and candidates have made big preparations and done intensive lobbying to win the lawmakers’ votes needed to enter the Senate.

Despite his present woes, Nawaz Sharif will continue to remain relevant in Pakistani politics

Despite his present woes, it is obvious that Nawaz Sharif will continue to remain relevant in Pakistani politics. He would remain the de facto head of the PML-N even if a nominal president of the party is named. The PML-N was founded by Nawaz Sharif and has always been led by him. The party is effectively run by the Sharif family and already Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif – currently the chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab – has been named as its candidate for the office of the next prime minister. What is more, Nawaz Sharif is grooming his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, to be his political heir. Maryam is married to a retired army captain, Mohammad Safdar, who is now a member of the National Assembly.

Imran Khan has always been opposed to dynastic politics and he cannot be accused of encouraging or supporting his wives or two UK-based sons to enter politics and eventually lead the PTI. However, even Imran Khan cannot help it when some of his party leaders promote their kith and kin in politics and secure for them PTI tickets to contest assembly elections.

Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are different characters and it is now impossible for the two to reconcile with each other. Both are ambitious and authoritatively lead their respective parties. Politics in Pakistan now mostly revolvesaround these two politicians as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), now led by former President Asif Ali Zardari and his young son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the only male child of Zardari and the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been facing decline and is now no match to the PML-N and the PTI.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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