PPP returns to the Centre stage

The current political situation has new opportunities and challenges for the Pakistan Peoples Party

PPP returns to the Centre stage


he Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is back at the centre of political contestation in Pakistan after nearly a decade. The party returned to power in Islamabad as part of a ruling coalition following the ouster of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government in a vote of no confidence in April. Throughout the decade, Sindh remained the citadel of electoral politics for the PPP in terms of a consistent vote bank. With 56 seats in the current National Assembly, the PPP played a pivotal role in the opposition to the PTI government. Asif Ali Zardari is widely perceived to be the grand strategist in the ‘machine politics’ of Pakistan. At present, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) jointly face the agitational onslaught of the PTI, which is back in the street with the demand to dissolve the coalition government and hold early elections.

The PPP was a founding member of the opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), comprising the PML-N, the PPP, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam Fazl ur Rehman group (JUI-F) and a few ethnic parties. Founded in 2020, the PDM succumbed to differences between the PML-N and the PPP. The PML-N, especially its leaders Maryam Nawaz and her father, Nawaz Sharif, sought an immediate end to the PTI rule and called for fresh elections. On the other hand, the PPP argued for an in-house change to allow the current assemblies to complete their tenure. The approach was interpreted in terms of its desire for its government in Sindh to complete its term. The PPP was in a unique position in the PDM as the only party that enjoyed power in a federating unit. Hence, the PPP’s politics was built around a balancing act between going all-out against the PTI at the Centre and holding on to its own government in Sindh. The PPP’s alliance with other opposition parties almost collapsed in April 2021, when the PDM issued a show-cause notice to the party after Yusuf Raza Gillani’s election as opposition leader in the Senate. Ironically, the election had required winning support of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), then a formal PTI ally.

The differences within the PDM almost brought an end to the opposition alliance. This was another episode in the long trajectory of the on-again, off-again relations between the PPP and the PML-N. The two parties had had adversarial relations during the 1990s but subsequently joined hands against the Musharraf regime through the Charter of Democracy. In 2018, the PML-N was unhappy with the PPP’s tacit support for the BAP that had brought down its government in Balochistan. With this chequered history in the background, the on-going bonhomie between these two parties provides an interesting example of pragmatic politics. In the face of relentless attacks by the PTI through rallies, the proposed sit-in in Islamabad in early June 2022 and the social media campaign, the two parties along with their partners appear to have joined hands to let the assemblies complete their tenure. The PML-N-PPP cooperation is at the heart of the future of this coalition government.

For the PPP, the current political situation holds new opportunities and challenges. The party was reduced to Sindh in the 2013 and 2018 elections, failing to show impressive electoral performance outside the province. In Karachi, it has been in power since 2008. In a period of generational transition within the PPP, with Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari getting increasingly visible on the political scene of Pakistan, the party is trying to re-capture its constituencies outside Sindh. The presence of Yousuf Raza Gillani as leader of opposition in the Senate, and Raja Pervez Ashraf as speaker of the National Assembly – along with their base in southern and northern Punjab respectively, reflects the party’s efforts to recover ground in the Punjab. In Sindh, the party faces a combination of opposition coming from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the PTI, the Grand National Alliance (GDA) and the Sindhi nationalists. With its support base confined to Sindh, the party has resorted to ethnic nationalist posturing to hold on to its voter base. The constant barrage of attacks on the Sindh government from the PTI-ruled Centre (2018-2022) forced the PPP to defend provincial rights on a range of issues including the Single National Curriculum (SNC), contention over water resources and the provinces’ share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. This has helped it cement its federal credentials.

The PPP and the MQM enjoyed control over the Sindhi and Muhajir vote in Sindh, respectively, for almost a quarter of a century (1988-2013). With the latter’s hegemony over the Muhajir vote broken following Rangers’ operations from 2013 onwards and the MQM’s factionalisation, the PPP is looking to increase its presence in Karachi. The 2021 accord between the two parties over local government laws exposed the PPP to allegations of a sell-out from Sindhi nationalists. The party is seeking to enhance its position in the province through a good showing in the local government elections as it prepares for the next general elections.

The coalition government faces several serious challenges, including the need to maintain the spirit of accommodation among coalition partners in the context of distribution of portfolios at the federal and provincial levels; transfer of resources for development; and the implicit competition between these parties regarding the next general elections. There is a lot at stake for the PPP in terms of visibility; outreach to voters outside Sindh and consolidation of the new leadership in the hands of Bilawal Bhutto. These are interesting times for the PPP as well as the broader political class.

The writer is assistant professor of political science at LUMS. She is the author of In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan (Hurst Publishers, 2021)

PPP returns to the Centre stage