Allies, not friends

June 23, 2024

Leaders on both sides try to mend PPP-PML-N ties

Allies, not friends


 string of meetings between the top leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party have highlighted the ongoing efforts to paper over the recent differences, especially the federal budget and power sharing in the Punjab.

Serious differences between the two allies had attracted spot light during the budget session.

PPP leaders have been expressing their dissatisfaction with administrative and parliamentary affairs ever since the PML-N formed the federal government with the help of the PPP and other groups. The PPP played its cards really well and secured important constitutional offices including the presidency and governorships of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab. In Sindh, it formed its government single-handedly. In Balochistan, it is leading a coalition government with the PML-N and other components.

The differences erupted when the PPP asked Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to release the funds held back by the caretaker government for the 2024-25. However, his current financial team did not let the PM make the desired commitment. Next, the PPP demanded a chunk of the federal development spending for Sindh beyond the budget. The PPP also submitted some proposals for the budget about privatisation, poverty alleviation and relief to the masses that were not included in the plans shared with the party ahead of the budget speech. The PPP also demanded chairmanship of more standing committees in the National Assembly than proposed by the speaker.

Realising that its demands were not being taken seriously, it boycotted the finance minister’s budget speech on June 12. This alarmed the PML-N. Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar then met and assured the PPP that their grievances would be addressed.

Both sides were careful while issuing statements against each other. The PML-N was more concerned about approval of the budget knowing that the PPP support was vital to its rule. The prime minister called on President Asif Zardari last week and assured him that the PPP’s reservations would be addressed. Interestingly, he did not take the finance minister along. Instead, he opted for Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal to accompany him. On the one hand, Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb kept saying that privatisation of the corporations burdening the economy was inevitable.

Later, the PM instructed the finance minister to negotiate with the PPP and address its grievances. Sources say the finance minister held in-depth negotiations with the PPP stalwart, Saleem Mandviwala, and reiterated that the PPP’s proposals would be included in the revised budgetary documents, including the Public Sector Development Programme.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto held a meeting. According to sources on both sides, the meeting was a success. The issues about the budget were resolved. Before the meeting, the National Assembly had started discussing the budget. The PPP had a skeleton presence.

Allies, not friends

Now, the PPP wants ministries for its members in the National Assembly and the Punjab Assembly. It also wants its candidates, who polled more than 25,000 vote in a Punjab constituency to be given positions in market committees etc and a say in transfers and postings in the civil bureaucracy, especially police.

A couple of PML-N leaders cracked jokes about the PPP objections. Some of them said the budget exercise had been very frustrating. “Even we were not consulted; our proposals went down the drain,” said a PML-N stalwart. He hoped that eventually, the differences over budget will be bridged and the PPP will vote for the federal budget for its approval.

The harder gulf to bridge, however, may lie ahead. Keeping in view the importance of the Punjab, once a PPP stronghold, the PPP looks beyond its presence in the federal and Punjab cabinets. The PTI has already replaced the PPP as the major challenger to the PML-N, struggling to hold its ground in the province. The PPP wants its vote bank in the Punjab back. To this end, Bilawal Bhutto contested the election from a Lahore constituency to motivate the party’s disgruntled supporters in the Punjab. Although he did not carry the constituency, his campaign made a difference in terms of the PPP’s total vote in the Punjab as compared to the 2013 1nd 2018 elections.

Now, the PPP wants ministries for its members in the National and Punjab Assemblies. It also wants its candidates, who polled more than 25,000 vote from a Punjab constituency to get positions like chairmanship of market committee. I also wants a say in the transfers and postings in civil bureaucracy, especially the police.

TNS contacted several PML-N leaders for their views on the matter. All of them declined a formal response. However, seeking anonymity, some of them said that the PML-N might include some PPP ministers in the federal cabinet. Ministries in the Punjab now, they said, were unlikely, especially after the governorship.

The PML-N is leading the federal government only because of the PPP’s vote bank. Therefore, it can be flexibile at the federal level where Shahbaz Sharif wants to work with the PPP. The situation in the Punjab is different. The PML-N enjoys a single-handed majority and Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz is trying to jettison the bureaucratic burden from departments by merging several departments. She does not want to expand the provincial cabinet. That is the reason why the second phase of the ministers’ induction did not take place.

It is worth mentioning here that several PML-N leaders are displeased with Maryam’s policy about discouraging political influence in transfers and postings in bureaucracy. Seeing her attitude and performance, one can safely say that she will resist the PPP demands.

Sources say that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar have told the PPP leaders that they will speak to Nawaz Sharif about all the PPP’s demands about a share of the pie in the Punjab. The matter might not be resolved easily. Several PPP leaders have sensed this. Commenting on the situation, Maula Bux Chandio, a PPP stalwart, said Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif might have call elections in 2025.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. His X handle: @BukhariMubasher

Allies, not friends