The PML-N is acting as if it doesn’t believe it can win the next election. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the PPP when the latter gave up the re-election ghost in 2013.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif have both declared that loadshedding in Pakistan would end in a matter of months. Shahbaz even joked that we would produce so much electricity we could even send some to Narendra Modi. These claims were made even as reports came in that loadshedding had increased for up to 14 hours a day. The effect of such statements could turn the PML-N into the Raja Rentals of 2017 – those who assure the public that all is well even as the nation is plunged into darkness.
The PML-N is behaving like an insecure party. The arrest of the PPP’s Sharjeel Memon seemed to serve little purpose. Memon may or may not be guilty of the massive corruption of which he’s been accused but the only reason he returned to Pakistan was because he had already obtained bail from the Islamabad High Court. For plainclothes officials of the National Accountability Bureau to still pick him up – even if just for a short time – was meant to send a message to the PPP: we’re coming for you.
The PPP, too, is coming for the PML-N. Asif Zardari has made Lahore the focal point of the PPP’s electioneering although its forays into territory that has hardly been friendly to the party seem to be based more on hope than expectation. In 2013, the PPP, partly out of worries over safety at a time when all its leaders were receiving threats from militants and partly because of resignation to its all-but-certain fate, didn’t really campaign for re-election. The result was to banish the party to rural Sindh and decimate it in Punjab. A few Zardari speeches should not rattle the PML-N.
Whatever political problems the PML-N government may be facing, its nervousness is difficult to understand. The party’s Punjab firewall still looks unbreachable. The PPP has made no inroads in the last five years. It seems content with its oppositional role, where it can pretend to be a party of principle that is worried only about the health of democracy and not its own personal power, even as it caves in on issue after issue such as the military courts. It has no leadership to speak of, as Asif Zardari ventures into new occupations and the political career of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is launched approximately four times every year without ever reaching into orbit.
For all intents and purposes, the PPP is a regional party, confined to Sindh, where its absentee leadership seems never to cost it votes. Once the PPP no longer has the most seats in the Senate, it ceases to be relevant.
This may be why Nawaz is trying to make a push into Sindh. He senses the PPP’s vulnerability and is trying to exploit it. The PPP certainly is worried. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah was particularly virulent in denouncing Nawaz for only showing up in the province when elections are near. But it is hard to see how the PML-N can make inroads in Sindh. It has only ever when a significant number of seats in the province when the elections have been rigged for them. The party is in disarray in Sindh. Try and name more than one leader of the PML-N’s Sindh chapter. Take your time. Unless you are a political junkie, it’s impossible to come up with a name.
This is a problem for the PML-N. Punjab has a majority of National Assembly seats and as long as the PML-N cannot be beaten there, it is safe. But taking such a narrow path to victory is dangerous for the party and bad for the country. Should the PTI finally get its act together and become a proper political party rather than a kid playing grown-up, it could snatch enough seats away from the PML-N to leave it no path to power.
For the country, it is bad when the ruling party only has a handful of seats in every province other than Punjab. Note how when foreign leaders are visiting the country, Shahbaz Sharif is almost always present. That is not sibling love but the importance of Punjab at play.
The PTI is not a party that likes talking policy when it could just assassinate some opposition characters. The party’s rule in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while far from a disaster, has not been free of the corruption and mismanagement that afflict everyone else.
The PML-N rode into power promising to fix the power crisis once and for all. It made a big show of paying off the circular debt in one fell swoop; now, after years or record low prices of oil internationally, the circular debt is close to what it was when the PML-N took over. Various actors within the power sector are in a state of open revolt over the government’s attempt to place the regulators under the water and power ministry. The Islamabad High Court has also nixed that decision but, as with the PPP, it is electricity that could be the biggest threat to the PML-N’s re-election prospects. No one expects loadshedding to be ended in one year but the PML-N has now had five and any improvement is hard to see. On the dictates of the IMF, the government has regularly raised power prices with the result that we now pay more to receive less electricity.
When asked what it has done for the country in the last five years, the PML-N has only one acronym: CPEC. And it is true that CPEC is changing the country. From something as basic as the noticeably increased presence of Chinese nationals everywhere from hotels to shopping malls to all the infrastructure projects, CPEC is the dominant force of our economic life.
But is not the life-saver the PML-N has made it out to be. The debt we have accumulated to finance CPEC projects may eventually overwhelm us, at which point the PML-N will look imprudent rather than prescient. And to rely on only one outside power, whose own interests could change at any time, for our future economic stability is hardly wise. If we put all our eggs in one basket, we shouldn’t be surprised if they all crack and break.
But campaigning isn’t done on what may happen 20 years down the line. This election is about the last five years and the PML-N, at least in Punjab, may be able to point to enough it has done to hang on for another five years.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.