The battle for Punjab

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The general elections may still be away but the battle for the control of the province of Punjab has started. This province has more population than that of all the other provinces taken together, giving it the highest number of seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the parliament. Any political party wishing to rule at the federal level singly or in partnership with other parties must demonstrate strong electoral performance in Punjab.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Group is currently ruling Punjab. It wants to sustain its commanding position at the provincial level and get more seats to claim power at the federal level after the next general elections. This objective cannot be achieved without securing an overwhelming electoral triumph in the Punjab by reducing the seats of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam Group. The PML(N) needs to perform excellently in Punjab because it has a very weak position in other provinces. If it gets over two-thirds National Assembly seats in the Punjab, it stands a chance to build a coalition with smaller political parties from other provinces and independent members to assume power at the federal level.

The recent developments in Punjab appear to make the PML(N) task quite difficult. It is expected to continue as a credible political force in the Punjab but it is not likely to sweep Punjab to the extent that it realises the dream of ruling Lahore and Islamabad simultaneously. The PML(N) faces three sets of challenges: the rise of Islamic parties and groups; confrontation with the PPP; and the PPP’s shrewd policy of coalition building with other political parties, especially the PML(Q).

The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tehrik-e-Insaf did not contest the 2008 general elections. Therefore, it was relatively easy for the PML(N) to get more votes from Islamist and political far right circles in the Punjab. Now, as these two political parties are going to contest the next general election, the pro-Jamaat people and sympathisers of Imran Khan are expected to vote for their parties.

There is an additional problem. The religious elements that were generally favourably disposed towards the PML(N) in the past have now created their own political formation i.e. the Sunni Tehrik. They have also created a joint forum under the title of the Sunni Ittehad Council with a number of other Islamic groups against the backdrop of the blasphemy law and the Raymond Davis issue. Traditionally, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa stayed away from Pakistan’s domestic politics but it has now become quite active with reference to the above issues. Some of these groups, especially the Sunni Tehrik and the Sunni Ittehad Council, have indicated their desire to get into the electoral fray. All this will increase competition for the PML(N) to attract voters from the political right-of-centre to far-right and Islamic circles.

Second, the PML(N) decision to push out the PPP members of the Punjab cabinet has created an unnecessary headache for the PML(N) government because the two parties are now confronting each other inside the Punjab Assembly and elsewhere.

The PPP’s strategy of winning over other parties and especially the PML(Q) is understandable because this extends the support base of the federal government, facilitating the passage of the forthcoming national budget which the PML(N) wants to contest. The PPP and the PML(Q) can join together to build pressure on their common adversary i.e. the PML(N). The access to power enables the PML(Q) to get “tasks” done in their political strongholds which will in turn help them to perform better in the next elections. This will also dissuade some, if not all, members of the Like-minded faction from forging close linkages with the PML(N).

The PML(N) will adopt a harder-than-ever disposition towards the PPP and the PML(Q) to upstage their cooperation. The recent decision of Senator Ishaq Dar to quit as the Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on Implementation of the 18th Constitutional Amendment is a part of the new strategy of non-cooperation and confrontation for building pressure on the PPP.

Another change in the PML(N) is the adoption of more Islamic and anti-US policy in order to neutralise the bid of other Islamic parties to wean away its voters. This includes Shahbaz Sharif’s efforts to distance his government from the exit of Raymond Davis from Pakistan, bitter criticism of drone attacks, the threat to stage a long march to Islamabad if drone attacks do not stop, and the call to defy US pressure. The PML(N) will continue to maintain an ambiguous position on terrorism in Pakistan and its sources.

The battle for the control of the Punjab is expected to intensify because the competing interests have increased. The PML(N) faces the danger of being isolated as the PPP tries to win over other political parties, and the Islamic groups endeavour to play a more autonomous role in the Punjab. The demand by some political parties for new provinces has placed the PML(N) in a difficult position because its initial response was negative towards such demands.

The PML(N) is now building counter pressure on its political adversaries. It is expected to take on the PPP in the forthcoming budget session in the parliament. If the PML(N) can embarrass the PPP-led federal government for poor governance, it faces the similar criticism in the Punjab.

The PPP is striving hard to develop active cooperation with other political parties to strengthen its position in the budget session and over-ride the PML(N) opposition. The federal government is also working hard to obtain additional funding from the US under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act and the Coalition Support Fund. The other sources are the IMF and investors from the Gulf States. If it is able to mobilise these sources, it will be able to present a reasonable budget.

The PML(N)’s bid to become more Islamic than Islamic parties is an attempt to protect its Islamic and political-right vote in Punjab but this strategy further weakens its position in other provinces. It also alienates the military that is looking for greater domestic political support for its counter-insurgency efforts and wants to sustain the US-Pakistan relations despite the current strains. The PML(N)’s Islamist and far-right political stance also cautions Western powers. The battle for Punjab cannot be fought in isolation from the rest of Pakistan and the global context.

 

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. This article gives current socio-political scenario of the Punjab Province ! The Punjab is a very huge Furnace where such mess makes no difference !!! Punjab has its own culture and its own religion !!! Punjabees know very well !!

  2. It was very informative article!
    Coalation of ppp and PML(Q) may make some trouble in the next ellection for Lahore and Islamabad making ruling party. . . .
    But as a resident of Punjab and Lahore we realy appreciate the work that PML(N) have done.
    In next ellection we wants that rulling party would be PML(N) .

  3. It was very informative article!
    In the next ellection for Lahore and Islamabad making ruling party. . . .
    But as a resident of Punjab and Lahore we realy appreciate the work that PML(N) have done.
    In next ellection we wants that rulling party would be PML(N) .
    GEO NAWAZ SHARIF

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