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June 20, 2021

Electoral politics in Punjab

The writer is the spokesperson for Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, and former governor Sindh.

While it may seem like there is still a long way to go, two years is not really too far away before the scheduled elections in 2023. The last year of the five-year tenure is basically election year, so we are just just a year away before political parties start to prepare for the electoral battle. And the way things have been happening of late in the National Assembly, the present one is becoming quite irrelevant and can even lead to early elections.

This is an interesting time to assess the electoral chances of various political parties, starting with Punjab which is the main battleground province. With 144 (including Islamabad) out of 272 directly elected seats, it is Punjab that determines which political party will form the government in Islamabad – though there are exceptions to this rule. In 1988 and 2008, the PML-N won in Punjab but still remained short of the majority at the national level. In both cases, the PPP was able to form the government in Islamabad despite losing in Punjab.

There are three main political parties in Pakistan – the PMLN, the PPP and the ruling party, PTI. No other party has any chance of winning the next elections in any province, especially Punjab.

Let’s take the case of the PPP first. It remains the party to beat in Sindh. It has won every single election in Sindh, starting with the first general elections in 1970 (except 1997). That is some record. Interestingly, more than Sindh, it was Punjab that remained the PPP’s strongest base in its early years. In fact, in the 1970 elections, it did not get a simple majority in Sindh. But it won two-thirds of the National Assembly seats in Punjab (62 out of 82). The Awami League had won the simple majority but after the separation of East Pakistan, the PPP formed the government in Islamabad – primarily due to its electoral strength in Punjab.

The party remained a powerhouse in Punjab till the 1988 elections when it faced its first electoral challenge by Mian Nawaz Sharif. Slowly but surely thereafter, the PPP lost its charm for the people in Punjab – the final nail in the coffin being the 1997 elections when it was swept by the popular tide in favour of the PML-N. The PPP did make a recovery in the 2002 elections but that was mainly due to the PML-N being forced to retreat under orders of the then military ruler Gen Musharraf. The elections in 2008 were the last when the PPP was able to win reasonable seats in southern Punjab but since then it has completely failed to make any impact in any part of Punjab.

The PTI is only a recent phenomenon, making its first impact in the 2013 elections. After the party was formed in 1996, it made its electoral debut in the 1997 elections. Imran Khan as the party chairman completely misread the sentiments of the voters, assuming he would be swept to power on the basis of the 1992 World Cup and the Shaukat Khanum Hospital project. Under Gen Musharraf’s patronage, he again miscalculated his electoral chances in the run up to the 2002 elections. In a TV interview after the elections with Mubashar Luqman, General Musharraf confirmed that Imran demanded 90-100 seats in the 2002 elections but according to the general he offered him 8-10 (imagine the demand being made and the offer from the general. Even more blatant, Musharraf felt nothing wrong in even revealing the entire episode in public).

In the end, the PTI could win just one seat. Imran lost badly elsewhere and was a spent force by the time the 2008 elections took place. His boycott was not even an issue for discussion. Gone was the dream – or so everyone thought until the grand revival in October 2011; but that had to do more with other forces than mass support. Popular support for the party was badly exposed in the 2013 elections when it could win just about 30 seats, the majority of which came from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It lost badly in Punjab but later made a ruckus, culminating in the famous dharna. Later, the Supreme Court reconfirmed that Elections 2013 were free and fair, and that the PML-N’s mandate was justified.

The PML-N has dominated politics in Punjab for well over three decades. Starting its electoral politics in 1988, it has remained the most popular political party across Punjab. The party’s opponents have often accused it of getting majority votes in Punjab as a result of support from undemocratic forces. If that was true, what explains its outstanding performance in the 2008 elections which were held while General Musharraf was president and his PML-Q was competing with the PML-N for supremacy in Punjab. Mian Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif had only returned to Pakistan a day before nomination papers were to be filed – barely any time for planning and preparation.

The remarkable performance of the PML-N in 2013 was the natural result of the massive development work undertaken by the PML-N government in Punjab during 2008-2013, led by Shahbaz Sharif as the chief minister.

Despite being on the receiving end in the 2018 elections, the PML-N still won the highest number of seats in Punjab. Even after Mian Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz were placed behind bars, the party was able to compete against all odds and won in its Punjab stronghold. Because of its strong urban popularity, it has been able to attract and retain the best among the educated middle class with outstanding professional and business backgrounds. That is the strength of the PML-N; it relies not just on electables but has in its fold a quality of people not available in other political parties. Since his entry into politics in the 80s, Mian Nawaz Sharif has remained a most popular leader. And now Maryam Nawaz has added flair and courage which has further provided impetus to the party’s electoral chances.

The recent by-elections in Punjab have yet again demonstrated that the PML-N remains the most popular political party in Punjab and if given an even playing field will probably sweep the elections and form the next government in Islamabad.

Twitter: @Real_MZubair