Just a year ago, the party looked indomitable. That is no more the case. The party of the Sharifs, which dominated the country’s political scene for more than three decades, is now struggling to keep its foothold even in its bastion. With the Punjab Assembly elections just months away, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) is facing its biggest electoral challenge. The humiliation the party suffered in the bye-elections in the province some months ago is an ominous sign.

The prospect appears even bleaker with a lacklustre Pakistan Muslim League (N)-led coalition government in Islamabad presiding over a possible economic collapse. It is the hour of reckoning for a party that has, over the years, been reduced to a family enterprise. It has long lost its status of being a national party and now its provincial fortress is under siege by a rampaging populist force led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the party, with its top leader living in self-exile in London, seems to have lost its bearings in the fast-changing political and social dynamics of the country, particularly in Punjab. The Sharifs are now struggling to build an effective narrative to counter the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf onslaught that has eroded the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s support base, particularly among the young generation and the urban middle classes looking for a change in the status quo.

With just about three months left for the critical Punjab elections to be held, time is running out for the party, which still seems to be living in a time warp. The tightening of dynastical control has hampered the party’s outreach as well as the induction of new blood in the leadership. It is all in the family, with Nawaz Sharif as the potentate and the younger brother as prime minister of the country and party president.

It doesn’t end there; the other top party positions are held by the new generation of the Sharif family. The very optics of Shehbaz Sharif being the prime minister and son Hamza the Punjab chief minister (though briefly) demonstrated the family’s stranglehold over the party that is supposed to stand for democracy. One wonders why one of the most powerful political forces in the country does not have any other person in its ranks to lead the party in the province.

Being elevated to the position of chief organiser and senior vice president, Maryam Nawaz has now formally been declared heir apparent. It is true that she had long been projected as the candidate for the top party position, and was ultimately meant to succeed her father. It is also true that she has mobilised the party over the last few years, after her father’s ouster from government in 2017. Her powerful oratory and charisma have certainly won her mass appeal. But the latest announcement about Maryam Nawaz’s further scaling the ladder in the Pakistan Muslim League (N) hierarchy has reportedly raised eyebrows among senior party leaders, many of whom have been associated with the party for more than three decades and have held important government positions. But reportedly, they hardly have a say in key party decisions.

Yet another example of the party turning into a Sharif family enterprise is that Maryam’s husband – 59-year-old retired Captain Muhammad Safdar, who is also a member of the National Assembly – heads the party’s youth wing. It can’t get more ironical. How can the party expect to reach the younger generation with such an image? Of course, it is not only about his age but also his retrogressive political views. Known for his obscurantist and extreme religious opinions, his only credential is his position as son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif.

It is not the younger Sharif (the prime minister) but the elder Sharif who has the final say regarding key policy decisions. One such example was the decision by Nawaz Sharif to have Ishaq Dar appointed as finance minister. Another close family member, Dar is certainly more trusted than the outsider but far more capable Miftah Ismail, who was unceremoniously removed within months of his appointment as finance minister.

An economist, unlike Dar the accountant, the former finance minister had taken some hard but necessary decisions to prevent the country from defaulting, but curiously, he was replaced soon after the revival of the International Monetary Fund’s bailout package. Predictably, Dar reversed a number of economic and financial measures taken by his predecessor, with disastrous results that have pushed the country back on the path to default. The worsening state of the economy has further eroded the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s prospects in the coming elections.

It may be true that most political parties in the country have turned into family enterprises, with no internal democracy. But the dynastical control in the Pakistan Muslim League (N) is far more deeply entrenched, with no outsider getting into the inner circle. Over the last few years, the party has effectively been run from London.

Surely, Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, has experienced many trials and tribulations in his political career spanning some four decades.

He has been ousted on all three occasions halfway through his term in office because of direct or indirect military interventions. In the past, Nawaz Sharif returned to power each time with a much larger electoral mandate. However, he will not be that fortunate this time as he has been convicted and disqualified from holding public office through a dubious and controversial court judgement.

There seems little likelihood of his returning to the country and running the party’s election campaign. In his absence, his daughter will be spearheading the Pakistan Muslim League (N) electioneering. But the real issue for the party would be how to regain its lost political capital in Punjab in the face of a formidable opposition. According to media reports, the party has decided to fight elections on the narrative related to Nawaz Sharif’s victimisation by the security establishment and the judiciary.

With Imran Khan also going to the polls on the wings of his own anti-establishment narrative, it will be hard for the Pakistan Muslim League (N) to rally public support. It would become much more difficult for the party going to the hustings without fresh ideas or a concrete programme that could help it win back the support of its erstwhile political power base. It is, indeed, the hour of reckoning for the House of Sharif.

This article first appeared in Dawn.