Differing with Shehbaz, PML-N’s Abbasi says lack of ‘right strategy’ not the reason for 2018 election defeat

Senior PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has disagreed with his party president Shehbaz Sharif that the PML-N lost the 2018 general elections due to the lack of the “right strategy”, proposing instead that a truth commission should be formed to investigate what really happened in the polls that brought Prime Minister Imran Khan to power.

Abbasi was speaking on Geo News programme Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Sath on Monday, a day after opposition leader in the National Assembly Shehbaz held his party itself responsible for its defeat in the general elections.

“I would say that if we had devised a proper strategy with collective consultation ahead of the 2018 elections then perhaps … Mian Nawaz Sharif would have become the prime minister for the fourth time,” the PML-N president said in an interview on Jirga with Saleem Safi on Sunday night.

Asked to comment on his remarks, Abbasi, who had taken over PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister after the latter’s disqualification, said: “A political party cannot make a mistake in an election. We contested on the basis of our five-year record. […] So I can’t accept that there was a mistake on our part.”

He said whatever happened in the 2018 elections and the alleged harm it caused to the country was part of history and needed to be scrutinised by a truth commission.

In the interview, Shehbaz, asked to comment on the “confusion” within the PML-N attributed to the vastly different political approaches taken by him and his brother Nawaz, who has openly accused the security establishment of interfering in elections, had stressed the need to “move on” while learning lessons from the past if Pakistan was to make real progress.

“Either we can spend all of our energies on doing accountability for past acts,” he said while referring to the separation of East Pakistan, the Kargil operation, and past military coups, “[or] we can learn lessons from the past, accept our mistakes and move on”.

The PML-N president emphasised that politicians too “allowed themselves to be used” and pulled each other’s legs for personal interest throughout Pakistan’s history. “You can’t clap with one hand. A single person or institution cannot be held responsible. Everyone is a culprit (Is hamaam mein hum sub nangay hain),” he said.

Abbasi avoided directly commenting on the “confusing” narratives of Shehbaz and Nawaz and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, but said “there is neither resistance nor reconciliation in politics. There are [only] rules and constitution.” He added that Shehbaz too had always advocated running the country according to the Constitution.

When questioned about Shehbaz’s remarks in which he termed Nawaz’s unrestrained and direct criticism of the top military leadership as “emotional” statements, Abbasi said the opposition leader was only explaining Nawaz’s remarks and that Nawaz had not criticised the entire army.

“The only way to resolve these confusions is the formation of a truth commission. Here, the [former] chiefs of the ISI and army are writing books, giving interviews and themselves bringing facts before the public. That is what gives rise to confusion,” he added.

He maintained that Nawaz and the party had only one policy statement that the country should be run according to the Constitution and “every institution should function within its constitutional limits”.

Asked whether the PML-N could win the 2023 election with its current strategy, Abbasi said the party was on the right path and would stand victorious if people were allowed to vote freely.

“Rigging does not happen on election day, it is started before the elections,” he added, saying there could be “no compromise” on law and the Constitution.

Abbasi and Shehbaz’s remarks come amid a debate that began in the PML-N over the party’s future strategy in the wake of back-to-back defeats in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir election and a by-poll in Sialkot, Dawn reported last week.

The loss of a provincial assembly seat on Wednesday which the PML-N had won in 2018 with a margin of over 17,000 votes “shocked” the party lawmakers who are concerned over the future of the party without mending its relations with the establishment.

Shehbaz had floated a proposal of holding a “grand dialogue” with all stakeholders, including the establishment, a couple of months ago, but has yet to convince Nawaz Sharif in this respect.

Shehbaz was also conspicuous by his absence in the AJK election campaign where Maryam Nawaz took the centre stage.

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