Who might rule over us in 2023? – Shahzad Chaudhry

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Or 2022, if you know what I mean. Assuming a normal run of events it is easy to conclude that the PPP blew its odds in gaining an entry into Punjab which unfortunately is the more likely way to power in Islamabad. With 141 National Assembly seats of the 272 directly elected in Punjab, anyone sweeping is assured of a simple majority at the Centre. Not that it is probable; there are some big players there and finding a foothold in their presence is a task cut out especially when one has lost its base almost to the point of non-existence. PPP lost Punjab during its tenure in government till 2013 and today can count only five members from southern Punjab in the NA. Most others migrated to PTI when prospects for PPP withered. When you listen to the party playing its ethnic card for relevance at the national level — for water or funds — the desperation and the admission is obvious.

Can it change? Why not, but for the moment PPP’s divorce from the PDM has lost it its one chance to piggyback on potential partners if indeed the PML-N were as benevolent — something unknown in politics. Difference in approach, philosophy and the strategy between the two — PPP and PML-N — makes them unlikely bedfellows. Though never is never a final word in politics the two are unlikely to mate because of inherent distrust of the other and varying political objectives.

The PML-N is in throes of its own predicament: who will take the centre-stage in the party? No amount of haberdashery can conceal the ongoing tussle between the respective streams of Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. The space that Nawaz Sharif has left at the top after his flight to London is in contention. The political discourse is far too magnanimous to call it a tussle of differing political philosophies; it is essentially jockeying for power within the party. Maryam, younger and new to the field, has modeled herself on Benazir Bhutto with a coterie egging her on the road to populist politics around personal charm and charisma. She mimics BB in challenging the army assuming an ideational commitment to democracy — without the substance or the obtaining conditions which turned BB into the politician she was. How far can she carry the avatar is to be seen but for the moment it is quite a stir.

The uncle is smarter. Having been there, seen it all, done that, he knows what will work in our typical environment. An efficient administrator with an eye on electoral politics, aided by a politician son who is a force to behold in Punjab politics, he has all his marbles aligned correctly. Punjab inherently doesn’t like challenging the army. The make-up is such. Again, idealism too must have genuine foundations and Punjabis will give it an odd fillip for once but to hark too long and far too loud when the case is weak can make them walk away easily. On both counts Maryam is on a slippery slope and the uncle safe. Electable(s) like predictability. Maryam is all about being unpredictable. Yes, some will stay on — the faithful and those who have now invested their lot openly with Maryam’s fortunes but the strength of PML-N is not in its CEC but in its wider base spread all over Punjab. This circle is going to be difficult to square because of the underlying discontent in the party and for the excessively aggressive and confrontational style adopted by Maryam.

The trick is in keeping the party together in a centrist approach to politics. Liberal radicalism is not for the Punjabis. They are not revolutionaries. Never have been; never will be. They like the predictable, stable, calming brand of politics which can assure continuity and sustainability. What shall be diverse, agitative and confrontational is to them the anti-thesis especially if it also seems a losing proposition. This needs sagacious interaction, prudent strategising and a wholesome compromise within to return the party to how it has always represented Punjab. Or it shall simply diffuse at the base triggering alternatives. The next two years will decide what shape the party takes in its politics and promise.

Of the 141 NA seats in Punjab the PTI and the PML-N hold 67 and 63 seats respectively. That is more than 90% of the electoral share. Put another way the two parties hold more than 90% of Punjab between them and they aren’t giving up on it in quick time. But what can really diffuse their stock is if the electorate reacts to a continuing weak governance of the PTI under which they have suffered enormously in the first half of PTI’s tenure. If by some magic the PTI can turn it around with its performance at the national level and in Punjab it can retain or add to its base strength with a better probability of being returned in 2023. A fragmented PML-N will make that even easier. If however the PTI continues to deliver weakly there will be serious splintering of the PTI base. The formation of a JKT group exhibits that trend. If, however, the PML-N can retain its integrity and the PTI continually fails, both Punjab and possibly the Centre are PML-N’s to lose.

What if the PML-N too divides or weakens and the electable(s) wander away? And the PTI continues to do bad. There are three groups in Punjab waiting to gobble up such stragglers. The JKT group has already made its mark and will more likely continue to retain its identity through the next elections and will be the most attractive core in Punjab to attach to especially if JKT can find himself some reprieve or can find the group a prominent face. The next are the independents who turned the game for PTI, courtesy JKT, and will still retain their bargaining power in the next set-up. More might add to this number from the weakened PML-N base and a disappointing and a splintered PTI. Third is of course the perpetual PML-Q which builds and withers per the flavour of the season. Or simply, all three groups may benefit rendering Punjab and the Centre an open field. It will then really depend how the other provinces fare and who might they, together with Punjab, throw up as the two leading contenders at the Centre. This will bring PPP back into contention.

Or, the PTI, PML-N and the PPP if not entirely equal are somewhat evenly placed but are unwilling to work with the other because their DNAs wouldn’t permit — though politics is known to bed stranger fellows. That is when an arbiter with a finger comes into the fold. If this doesn’t tell politics what fails it every time — and how a fractured landscape lends itself to multiple permutations — nothing else will. A hybrid system eventuates, it isn’t contrived. Truth be told we couldn’t have navigated some of our most serious national challenges in the last 13 years without the organisational strength and focus of cooperative mechanism derived through multi-dimensional apex bodies and hybrid enablement. We just might get more of the same.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 11h, 2021.