To continue his family’s political dynasty ahead of next year’s vote, ousted Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif is looking to his younger brother Shehbaz -- widely seen as the more disciplined sibling with a reputation for forcing through economic reforms.
Pakistan’s ruling party over the weekend was quick to nominate Shehbaz, the chief minister of Punjab province, to take over his brother’s old role. In the meantime, a caretaker prime minister will be appointed for 45 days to allow Shehbaz to contest Nawaz’s seat in a by-election. Nawaz was barred from office on Friday in a unprecedented ruling from the nation’s top court, which said he had not been “honest” in his company disclosures, becoming the second world leader to be felled by last year’s so-called Panama Papers leak.
To some, Shehbaz will be seen as a steady hand before elections next year with an ability to drive badly-needed infrastructure projects as the nation’s current account deficit widens after years of steady economic growth. To others, his anointment is a cynical play by the Sharif family to cling to power despite being muddied by numerous corruption allegations.
Pakistan’s economy has been growing at an annual rate of above 4 percent since 2014, with Punjab contributing over half the country’s gross domestic product. In his latest term, Shehbaz has ushered in the construction of LNG and coal power plants across the province, boosting electricity generation and reducing the length of daily blackouts.
Shehbaz, 65, is an efficient administrator who usually sleeps only four hours a night, according to two people with direct knowledge of his habits, who asked not to be named so they could talk freely about the politician. He starts meetings around 8 a.m., in contrast to laxer Pakistani working hours and his staff aren’t allowed to sleep until midnight so they can continue to field calls from him, the people said.
He can bulldoze through Pakistan’s usually ponderous bureaucracy and complete infrastructure projects in record time, they said, and often berates officials during meetings. The construction of a giant power plant in Sahiwal, for example, was completed in 22 months, ahead of the usual four years it usually takes for a plant that size. Shehbaz’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“He is pragmatic,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. “He has a highly personalized way of ruling. He doesn’t believe in sharing -- he needs to change that style a bit, otherwise there will be trouble for him running the system.”
During an interview at his residence in Lahore last month, some of that irritation surfaced when asked questions Pakistan’s on daily power blackouts. Tapping his table loudly when making a point, Shehbaz first spoke widely about progress made bridging Pakistan’s electricity gap, but grew impatient when asked about the poor state of the transmission network.
He listed his government’s achievements: building power plants, improving security and developing hospitals and schools and points to a beefed up road and bus network in Lahore and a metro railway line currently under construction. Espousing pro-business credentials, he derided the bloated condition of state-owned companies, such as Pakistan International Airlines Corp. and Pakistan Steel Mills Ltd., both of which the Sharif administration has tried and failed to privatize in recent years.
“We are losing billions and billions and those billions should have gone to health, education, infrastructure advancement, security,” he said in the interview. “Governments don’t run industry -- government’s job is to establish policy instruments, support private investment, be a catalyst, be a promoter through business-friendly policies.”
Shehbaz is the middle of three sons of industrialist Mian Muhammad Sharif, whose family emigrated to Lahore from Amritsar after Pakistan’s partition from India in 1947. Graduating from a government university, Shehbaz went into the family business and became president of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce in 1985, three years before entering politics.
It was during his first term as chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and the Sharif family vote bank, that he was jailed in a 1999 military coup, along with Nawaz, who was prime minister at the time. In 2000, both brothers were forced into exile and spent years in Saudi Arabia.
The younger Sharif has not escaped corruption allegations or controversy that dogged his elder brother. In 2003, while still in exile, Shehbaz was charged with ordering the police in 1998 to kill five religious students suspected to be involved in terrorist acts. He refuted the allegations and said they were politically motivated.
The Sharif brothers returned to Pakistan in 2007, but Shehbaz was barred from running in elections a year later as the murder charges lingered. He was acquitted in 2008 and was installed as chief minister of Punjab a second time after a by-election later the same year.
Unlike Nawaz, Shehbaz is seen to have a less prickly relationship with the military, which may bode well for his political survival. The armed forces have ruled Pakistan for a large part of its 70 years and two of the six members of the court-mandated investigative team which presented the damning report into the Sharif family finances were drawn from military intelligence agencies.
“He has good contacts with military which he has often used to address differences between Nawaz Sharif and the army,” said Rivzi.
Shehbaz has also kept a high profile outside the shadow of his brother. He often accompanied the elder Sharif on foreign trips, particularly to China as the country finances more than $50 billion in infrastructure projects across Pakistan. A video montage on his Facebook page shows him visiting hospitals, giving speeches at investor conferences and exchanging hugs with Turkish President Recep Ergdogan.
Pakistan’s National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, will meet on Tuesday to elect a new prime minister. The ruling party has nominated former Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to be a caretaker premier before Shehbaz takes office. Abbasi told reporters in Islamabad on Monday that he would ensure policy continuity.
With Shehbaz’s eventual coronation it’s unlikely that Imran Khan, the former cricket star and leader of the second largest opposition party, will stop targeting the Sharif administration after his relentless campaign helped bring down Nawaz.
By ushering in his brother, Nawaz is “making a mockery of democracy,” Khan said Saturday on Twitter.
“It’s essentially like they don’t believe in an inclusive democracy,” said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies. Pakistani lawmakers “have skeletons so they don’t dare to stand up” to the family, he said. “It’s a shame that after so many years of a comfortable majority in Parliament they don’t conduct themselves in a democratic way.”
To reduce the fallout that could affect the ruling party’s re-election prospects, Shehbaz will need to double-down on completing vital infrastructure projects.
“Of course there will be opposition to Shehbaz Sharif,” said Khurram Schehzad, chief commercial officer at Karachi-based JS Global Capital Ltd. But if power cuts are “controlled in Punjab and the economy continues on an upward trend, there is no stopping” another Sharif election victory next year.
--With assistance from Faseeh Mangi