Maryam Sharif: Pakistan's next political star?

image copyrightMaryam Sharif
image captionMaryam Sharif is said to be her father's closest adviser

Maryam Sharif is tipped as a future political star but she's been caught up in fallout from the leaked Panama Papers. Could this derail the rise of the daughter of Pakistan's prime minister? Shumaila Jaffery investigates as part of a series on Asian women likely to make the news in 2017.

I still vividly remember when I first saw Maryam Sharif. It was a few days after I'd started college in Lahore in 1991 and I was standing in the corridor when suddenly she appeared.

She was surrounded by a group of girls, wore a long white embroidered shirt and was carrying a folder with her father Nawaz Sharif's picture pasted on it. She was the prime minister's daughter and a "celebrity" in college.

By the 1990s, the Sharifs had established themselves as one of the most prominent ruling dynasties in Punjab province.

Politically, it was one of the most turbulent decades in the country's history when four democratically-elected governments, including Nawaz Sharif's, were overthrown without completing their term.

During this time, Maryam was busy with her personal life, raising her two children out of the public eye.

Fighting for father

But in October 1999 when Nawaz Sharif was put in jail after a bloodless military coup and the male members of the family were placed under house arrest, Maryam and her mother went public to challenge military ruler General Musharraf and champion her father's cause.

image copyrightAP
image captionMaryam Nawaz (left) played a crucial role in campaigning to secure the release of her father. She is seen here with her mother Kulsoom in green and her sister Asma (centre) in November 1999

Salman Ghani, a veteran journalist from Lahore, says he first received a phone call from Maryam during this tense period, when she invited him for a meeting.

"Those were the dangerous times, everything was being monitored and people were reluctant to talk to Maryam on the phone," he says, although he still went to meet her.

"To be honest, as a father I felt sympathetic towards her and I thought she must be frightened," he says.

"But when I met her, to my surprise, she was very aggressive and extremely critical of General Musharraf's regime."

Asian women to watch in 2017

With the help of the Saudi king, Maryam and her mother brokered a deal with Gen Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif was released from jail and the family was exiled to Saudi Arabia.

They returned in 2007, won elections in Punjab and formed the regional government.

Youth vote

But in 2011, another political development shook the country. Former cricketer Imran Khan held a rally in Lahore, the traditional Sharif power base.

It was mobbed by young people, which rang alarm bells among political rivals.

Maryam re-emerged from the shadows and without having any official political position, she started visiting schools and colleges in an effort to connect with students.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMaryam Sharif on the campaign trail in Lahore in May 2013

I covered her first visit to Lahore's famous all-women's Home Economics College. It was my first sight of her in nearly 20 years. Poised, polished and articulate, she was an entirely different person.

"She was launched as a young face of Sharif's PML-N party to attract the youth and to counter former cricketer Imran Khan's growing popularity among youngsters," says Salman Ghani.

Maryam was an early adopter of social media and acquired millions of followers on Twitter within a few months.

During the 2013 election campaign, she focused on meeting youth delegations and helped her father regain power although she did not contest a seat.

When her father formed the national government, she moved to the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad and started running the "Strategic Media Communication Cell".

Panama Papers damage

But her more high-profile role has not been without controversy.

Maryam and her siblings were named in the leaked Panama Papers in 2016, in which they are accused of links to undeclared offshore companies that owned properties in the UK, a charge the Sharif family vehemently denies.

The opposition is seeking to remove her father from office over the affair and Imran Khan has taken the case to the Supreme Court.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Sharif women take centre stage as mother and daughter drum up votes

Journalist Salam Ghani says the opposition sees Maryam as a threat.

"They know she is Nawaz Sharif's substitute," he says. "That's why they have made it a point to target her, even more than they criticise her father."

Despite the fact that she does not hold any public office, many believe that she is the most powerful person in Sharif's government, after him.

"She is her father's closest aide, his most reliable adviser," says political commentator Sohail Warraich.

"Every day they spend a lot of time together. Nobody understands Nawaz Sharif's political philosophy and his opinion better than Maryam," he adds.

How high can she go?

Can Maryam become her father's political heir? Is she being groomed to become the next prime minister if the PML-N party wins national elections in 2018?

Sohail Warraich believes her uncle Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, is the strongest candidate.

"The Sharif family is very conservative, " he says. "If she enters politics and seeks elected office, she will lose the protection that she has enjoyed all her life. How will the family react to that?"

Pakistan has had a female prime minister before but veteran journalist Salman Ghani is circumspect about the parallels.

image copyrightAFP/Getty
image captionBenazir Bhutto was Pakistan's first female prime minister but was assassinated in 2007

"Maryam's baggage is huge, unlike former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto," he says.

"Whatever the court decides, she will have these allegations hanging over her if and when she enters politics.

"The opposition might not be able to hurt the Sharifs politically through the Panama leaks but it is taking a toll on their ethical standing," he adds. "And in politics, ethics are everything."

But in Pakistan where democracy is still wedded to personality and political dynasties, many feel her role in frontline politics is inevitable.

Maryam Sharif rarely gives interviews and her office said she was too busy to respond to our BBC request.

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