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Opinion

June 29, 2018

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The PPP’s Punjab crisis

The PPP is still facing an uphill task in recovering its lost political and electoral space and support in Punjab. Once a mighty political force in the province, the PPP’s current standing is not even a shadow of its past glory.

The party’s electoral prospects don’t seem too promising. However, it will be wrong to declare the PPP dead as a political force in Punjab even though it might not be able to make big gains in the upcoming July 25 general elections.

Under present circumstances, it will be a big step forward if the PPP manages to win 10 to 15 National Assembly seats in Punjab. That can boost the morale of its workers and voters. The PPP was expecting that the disgruntled leaders of both the PML-N and the PTI will seek its tickets to contest the elections. But the dejected leaders instead preferred to contest as independent candidates.

Founded in Lahore 50 years ago, Punjab was a stronghold of the PPP. It was so powerful and popular in the province that the powers that be were forced to create the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to rig the 1988 elections to stop the PPP from making a clear majority in parliament. But the situation has changed a lot since then. Today, the PPP is even finding it difficult to nominate competitive candidates in many urban constituencies. It is not in a position to win a single National Assembly seat from any of Punjab’s main urban centres. But the party does stand a chance of winning a few seats from southern Punjab where it still has some strong candidates.

Many of the party’s leaders are comparing the present situation to the 1997 election defeat – the PPP had failed to win even a single National Assembly seat in Punjab. However, it is wrong to draw comparisons between the present crisis and the election defeat of 1997. The purpose of this comparison is to oversimplify the multiple and complex ideological, political and organisational crises of the PPP.

Even in 1997, when the PPP showed its poorest electoral performance, it had still managed to secure a 22 percent vote share in Punjab. Moreover, the party staged a strong comeback in 2002 and bagged the highest percentage of popular vote, finishing second in the National Assembly, with more than 80 seats.

In 1997, the PPP’s workers, voters and supporters were demoralised and disappointed, and opted to stay at home. But in 2002, the party was able to mobilise its voters and proved that it was still a power to reckon with. Before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the PPP was not only in a strong position to win the 2008 elections but also gain more seats and votes. The PPP emerged as the largest party in the 2008 elections even though Benazir Bhutto’s assassination dealt a blow to the party, which it has not recovered from.

In the 2013 elections, the PPP got just 11 percent of votes from Punjab; its candidates also performed poorly in all the by-elections held since 2013. And there is no sign of recovery in sight as yet.

The main difference between the 1997 and 2013 elections was that in the former the PPP’s voters stayed at home but did not shift allegiances to any other party. The voters abstained from showing anger and dissent and remained loyal to the PPP. But in 2013, the PPP’s voters not only expressed anger and dissent but, for the very first time, opted to vote for the PTI. It was not a one-time abstention like in 1997, but a rebellion against the policy of collaboration, capitulation and alliances with hostile political forces and opponents.

How unfortunate it is for the PPP that the PTI candidates in Punjab are banking on the former voters of the PPP to win the election against the PML-N candidates. All the electables who quit the PPP and joined the PTI to contest the 2018 elections are relying on the PPP’s voters to win the constituencies. Nadeem Afzal Chan, Nazar Muhammad Gondal, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Niaz Jhakar and others are among the electables hoping to secure the PPP’s votes along with the PTI’s and their own.

The PPP needs radical slogans, a pro-people agenda and programme, and a clear progressive and secular narrative if it is to make a comeback in Punjab. The party needs to revert to its original socialist ideas and radical programmes to win back the support of its poor and working-class voters. The biggest challenge for the PPP leadership is to attract the spirited youth of Punjab and to make inroads into the middle class. The PPP was once the party of the working class, the poor and the middle class in Punjab. It first lost to the PML-N and now to the PTI on both the fronts.

The PPP can make a comeback in Punjab. But we will have to wait longer than expected. The party needs a clear ideology, strategy, programme and strong organisation to take back its lost ground. It is true that the PPP is going through the most serious crisis of its history, but the party could still make a comeback in Punjab if young people are brought into its mainstream politics, besides reorganising the party at all levels. A combination of active organisation, radical politics and popular leadership is what the PPP needs.

The party was once considered a force against the status quo and the voice of the labour and exploited classes. It believed in freedom of thought, equality, economic and social justice, the redistribution of wealth, and social progressivism. The PPP needs to return to its basic principles and thoughts and develop its programme and manifesto on the basis of these guiding principles: “Islam is our faith, democracy is our politics, socialism is our economy and all power to the people.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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