PML-N mulls over options for new party chief

LAHORE: Leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have been unable to arrive at a decision over who would replace former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as the party chief in accordance with a notice from the top electoral watchdog following Mr Sharif’s disqualification from office.

At a consultative meeting on Tuesday, chaired by Mr Sharif at his Raiwind residence, the leaders, however, decided to continue with the party’s “mass-contact drive” in the wake of a “positive” response from supporters along the ex-PM’s rally on GT Road.

Those who attended the meeting include National assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, Punjab Governor Rafiq Rajwana, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Foreign Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Railways Minister Khwaja Saad Rafiq, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, MNA Hamza Shahbaz, Senator Pervaiz Rashid, Anushe Rehman, former law minister Zahid Hamid and ex-IG Rana Maqbool.

“We did discuss all available options for a new party chief but could not arrive at a decision…we decided to hold huddles for a couple of more days keeping in view various legal and political sensitivities involved with the issue,” Mr Rafiq told reporters outside the meeting’s venue.

Though he did not share details about the meeting, sources said that a new face, other than Shahbaz Sharif, is being considered so that the chief minister could continue focussing his attention on Punjab’s mega development projects.

Last Tuesday, party chairman Raja Zafarul Haq had said that Shahbaz Sharif had been finalised as the new PML-N president and a formal announcement to the effect would be made within two days.

Mr Shahbaz had also previously been touted as the next prime minister, while PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was to serve as a stopgap arrangement till the Punjab CM could be elected to the National Assembly. The plan changed after some party leaders opposed the “unnecessary” disturbance in the existing political setting.

A party official claims that former first lady Begum Kulsoom might be the next party president and that her nomination was pending clearance of her candidature for NA-120 by-polls with the Election Commission. She is to appear before the returning officer on Wednesday (today) as her rival candidates have raised objections to her nomination papers.

The delay in announcing a new candidate for the PML-N president gives credence to such reports.

The party has to comply with the ECP’s notice and elect a new president by Aug 25, the last date for withdrawal of nominations in the NA-120 by-polls, in which Begum Kulsoom is a party nominee. Otherwise, she may not be allotted the PML-N’s election symbol — tiger.

After the Supreme Court’s verdict on July 28, the Election Commission asked the PML-N on Aug 7 to elect a new chief as election laws do not allow a person who does not qualify to become a member of parliament to serve as an office-bearer of a political entity.

The PML-N’s constitution, too, requires it to nominate an acting president within seven days and to fill the vacancy with a permanent office-bearer within 45 days.

Mr Rafiq said the party had decided to continue with its mass-contact drive and was finalising its modalities. “The party will do continue and pace up the mass-contact drive…its various aspects are being reviewed… A schedule of the rallies and public meetings will be issued soon.”

A participant of the consultative meeting told Dawn that security concerns had kept the participants divided on whether Mr Sharif should simply address public meetings or, like with the GT Road rally, lead rallies to various towns.

He said party leaders from Faisalabad had insisted that Mr Sharif visit their city first, claiming that the response from party activists there would be more impressive than what was witnessed in Lahore, when he had arrived for the first time after being disqualified.

Responding to a query, Mr Rafiq rejected the suggestion that there were any serious differences among party ranks on the issue of a mass-contact drive or any other issue for that matter