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Shahbaz Sharif - Who is Pakistan's likely next PM?

After the ouster of Nawaz Sharif, the former PM's younger brother is likely to take over the reins in September. Shahbaz Sharif is believed to be more acceptable to Pakistan's powerful military establishment than Nawaz.

Pakistan's National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as interim prime minister on Tuesday, August 1, following the disqualification of former premier Nawaz Sharif in a corruption case related to Panama Papers.

In a historic ruling on July 28, a five-judge Supreme Court panel found Sharif guilty of not declaring his financial assets, although not directly in connection with the Panama Papers controversy. The corruption cases have been referred to an accountability court. The former prime minister and his family have consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Abbasi is likely to vacate his post if and when Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz's younger brother and chief minister of Pakistan's most populous and economically most powerful province, Punjab, gets elected to the National Assembly. The process could take up to a month and a half, according to the Islamic country's electoral rules.

Shahbaz's election from Nawaz's vacant seat in Lahore is almost certain because the eastern city has been the Sharifs' stronghold for the past three decades. But local media claims that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party might not elevate Shahbaz to premiership after all. Pakistan will hold general elections next year and Shahbaz as Punjab's chief minister could be instrumental in his party's victory in the province, which most often determines who forms a government in Islamabad.

"The majority of members in our party wants Shahbaz Sharif to retain his chief minister post in Punjab. He is irreplaceable in the province. He also has to lead the election campaign next year from Punjab," Uzma Bukhari, a ruling party official, told DW.

Nawaz Sharif's political image has been seriously dented by his disqualification after years-long anti-corruption campaign led by cricketer-turned opposition politician Imran Khan. Nawaz has been barred from holding public office for an indefinite period of time, and in his absence Shahbaz, as prime minister, could stabilize the situation.

Dynastic politics in Pakistan, as well as India and Bangladesh - two fellow South Asian countries - have deep roots. After the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto in 2007, her widower Asif Ali Zardari and son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are leading the liberal Pakistan People's Party.

Watch video 01:29

Sharif steps down after Supreme Court ruling

Political evolution

66-year-old Shahbaz Sharif is primarily a businessman like his brother Nawaz. Both Sharifs started their political careers under the tutelage of former military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, in the 1980s.

Shahbaz and Nawaz jointly own the Ittefaq Group of Industries, which was nationalized by Benazir Bhutto's father and former socialist premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976. The move prompted the Sharifs to get closer to Zia ul-Haq when he overthrew Bhutto's government in 1977 and later hanged him through a controversial judicial trial.

Sharifs' early politics, thus, was conservative and pro-military. When Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988, both Shahbaz and Nawaz were at the forefront of an opposition alliance against her, which some analysts say was backed by the military's intelligence agencies.

"We must not forget that the Sharifs' political career was nurtured by the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (IS)," Saleem Asmi, a former editor of Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, told DW.

Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Brussels-based Pakistani journalist, said the ISI helped form an anti-Bhutto alliance, the Islami Jamhoori Itehad (IJI), in which the Sharifs played a pivotal role.

"Both Nawaz and Shahbaz were leading the IJI and forced Benazir Bhutto out of power in 1990," Farooqi told DW.

During the 1990s, Nawaz focused on national politics and became prime minister two times. Shahbaz, on the other hand, remained committed to provincial politics and served as chief minister.

But Nawaz's both tenures as PM were cut short - while he was ousted on corruption charges this time, in 1999 his government was overthrown in a military coup led by the pro-West General Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf sent both Nawaz and Shahbaz into exile in Saudi Arabia, and that was when the politics of the Sharifs underwent a metamorphosis. They forged an informal alliance with Benazir Bhutto - who was also in exile during Mushrraf's eight-year-long iron fist rule - for the supremacy of civilian democracy in Pakistan. The Sharifs also turned against their military tormenters and tried to assert their political authority once they returned from exile in 2008 and later elected to power in 2013.

Nawaz Sharif Rede in Lahore (picture alliance/AP Photo)

Nawaz and Shahbaz started their political careers in the early 1980s

Unlike Nawaz, Shahbaz is considered more pragmatic in his approach and maintains better ties with the military establishment than his brother. Political observers cite Nawaz's India-friendly policies as one of the reasons behind a "judicial coup" against him.

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"Shahbaz is more acceptable to the military establishment than his brother. It was Shahbaz who kept the line of communication with the army open while the Sharifs were in exile. That eventually led to their return to Pakistan," Farooqi underlined, adding that Nawaz's politics had undergone a radical transformation during his time in exile.

"Nawaz is reluctant to give more space to the army generals," he said.

Shahbaz has been criticized by Pakistan's liberal groups for maintaining "good ties" with hardline Islamic groups, a claim denied by his party.

Read: Opinion: Indian Premier Modi should not isolate Pakistan's Sharif

Politics of development

Apart from politics, Shahbaz Sharif has built a reputation for being a hardworking chief minister who has been responsible for a number of development projects in the Punjab province, which borders India. For this reason, Shahbaz has earned the title "Khadim-i-Aala" (the great servant of people).

Many analysts agree that Punjab is Pakistan's most-developed province, courtesy of Shahbaz's development work but also due to the fact that the province gets the biggest share in the budget. The province commands significant political authority due to its economic status and also because Pakistan's powerful military has Punjab as its stronghold. The South Asian country's three smaller provinces, particularly the western Baluchistan province accuse Punjab of usurping their resources.

Pakistan Punjab Hauptminister Shahbaz Sharif (DGPR)

Shahbaz Sharif is known for his energetic development work and populist speeches

"Shahbaz Sharif is a very disciplined and energetic person. He has worked relentlessly for the development of his province," Farooqi said.

But opposition parties say most of Shahbaz's development projects are not sustainable and are a "show-off," such as transport lines, highways and plazas. The basic infrastructure and an emphasis on health and education are still missing from his schemes.

"The criticism largely holds. Shahbaz usually undertakes projects that he can show to the people. They revolve around electoral politics," Farooqi said. "But once I spoke with Nawaz Sharif and he said they would want to focus on basic health and education projects in the second phase of development programs."

It is unclear whether Shahbaz would leave Punjab and enter national politics. If he became the country's prime minister, he could help bring stability to Pakistan's volatile politics and build bridges between the military generals and his ousted brother. But opposition politician Imran Khan would most likely rally against Shahbaz to improve his chances in next year's vote. All in all, Pakistan's politics today is more uncertain than ever.

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