Down but not out

August 5, 2018

Ousted after 10 years in power in Punjab, will the PML-N remain intact?

Down but not out

The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) lost its years-long supremacy in the 2018 general elections. The party has been ousted after about 10 years in power. Political pundits see this as a major challenge for the party. Will it remain intact, especially with its convicted leader Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of civilian supremacy? Many hope so.

The latest results of the general elections show PML-N winning 64 National Assembly seats, which include 61 from Punjab. In the Punjab Assembly, the PML-N has bagged 129 out of 295 seats.

However, in 2018 at the national level the PML-N has won most seats in central and upper Punjab: Narowal, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Kasur, Okara, Sargodha and Sahiwal. The party has also maintained its hold in Lahore, bagging 10 out of 14 seats. It has lost completely in the northern region, however. In Rawalpindi, one of the strongholds, the party failed to win even a single seat. It also failed to get a reasonable number of seats from South Punjab.

After the conviction of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, facing a tough time during NAB investigations, and losing the general elections the PML-N is facing a hard time. The opportunist members of the party may defect to the winning side seeing no future in the PML-N, at least in the near future.

According to party insiders, a dozen newly-elected Punjab Assembly members failed to show up at the party’s important meeting called to strategize about forming government in the Punjab, fuelling speculations about defections and the formation of a forward bloc.

However, results show the message of the elder Sharif has been well received by voters. They came out on election day to vote for him. In a number of constituencies in central Punjab, the stronghold of Nawaz Sharif, the turnout was nearly 60 per cent and PML-N’s second-tier leaders such as Khurram Dastgir Khan and Pervez Malik got more than 100,000 votes, defeating their opponents with a big margin.

"Despite all the setbacks, the PML-N has remained intact because the PML-N voters and workers are steadfast in their loyalty to Nawaz Sharif and by extension his daughter Maryam Nawaz," says Raza Rumi, political commentator and columnist. "This is why many electables from central Punjab did not defect to other parties because they knew the popular vote belonged to Nawaz Sharif in person," he adds.

Raza believes given the fragile nature of the incoming Punjab government, the PML-N would not wither away because a weak government in Punjab and the centre is not likely to deliver to the extent that Imran Khan has promised. At some point, Maryam Nawaz will be out of jail and she is likely to lead the party with a new agenda of civilian supremacy and development. "There is no doubt that Nawaz Sharif, through his message of civilian supremacy, has educated the voters of Punjab and given them a new political consciousness," Rumi thinks.

In a number of constituencies in central Punjab, the PML-N’s second-tier leaders got more than 100,000 votes, defeating their opponents with a big margin.

Following the General Pervez Musharraf coup on October 12, 1999 and three years of Musharraf as chief executive of the country, the PML-N, amid pressures of Sharif’s deal with the military establishment, could win only 15 seats in the general elections 2002.

Similar efforts were made in general elections 2018 by attempting to keep Sharif away from the county on the grounds of his wife’s ailment. But soon after the sentence awarded by the NAB court he preferred to leave London along with his daughter and decided to go to jail to fight his legal battle in the country.

Sharif’s appeal has been admitted for hearing and a judgment is expected in the coming weeks. Since the PML-N has failed to get a majority in the general elections, a victory that could have led to Sharif’s release from jail, and helped end his disqualifications through parliamentary legislation, there are rumours of another deal with the military establishment; a deal that could allow the Sharifs to leave the country,

"At the moment, the opposition is united but the challenge for PML-N and its leadership is that they are not used to being in the opposition. For decades, the PMLN-N leadership has enjoyed power and a hard opposition might be a challenge for him, particularly Shahbaz Sharif," says Arif Nizami, a senior political analyst and journalist.

Actually, this is a test for Shahbaz Sharif and his role as the party leader, he says. "The number of PML-N members and supporters might come down slightly because there are already two groups within the party -- one led by Shahbaz, wooing support of the establishment and the other following the narrative of Nawaz Sharif," Nizami adds.

"But ultimately the voice of Nawaz Sharif matters because he enjoys popular support in the party. The other group in the PML-N has also failed to get the desired results," he opines.

"The PML-N actually has done better in the elections and voters of Nawaz Sharif have responded to his call. Political leaders cannot be eliminated this way. And general elections of 2008 and 2013 proved that," says Hafeezullah Niazi, a political commentator.

Down but not out