PPP in the Punjab | Bushra Zaidi

Mar 2013

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Fast-forward to 2008, and the South of Punjab lags far behind the rest of the province in prosperity and development rankings. The PPP’s candidates are powerful individuals with deep pockets and wide networks of patronage. And in spite of the PMLN’s years of prosperity in Lahore, Faisalabad and urban Punjab, the PPP’s main rival in Punjab has largely failed to impress most constituencies south of Multan. It is unable to match PPP’s slogan of victimization with a sufficiently appealing counter-argument. In 2013 this is fueled further by People’s Party ingenious campaign for a separate “Janoobi Punjab” province, tapping into anti-settler, Seraki ethno-linguist grievances. The PPP may well have the South all sewn up.

The more curious puzzle is PPP’s persistent vote in Upper and Central Punjab. At its lowest points, in 1990 (following nation-wide, institutionalised anti-PPP rigging by the intelligence and the then-President of Pakistan) and in 1997 (when the party failed to get a single seat in Punjab), its vote share remained stubbornly high. There are several theories for this: researcher and columnist Umair Javed suggests the retention of old party activists – Jehangir Badar, Qamar Zaman Kaira, even Raja Pervez Ashraf himself – are indicative of a trend that replicates itself at each tier of the party network. The PPP, more so than any party in Pakistan, can still claim to have activists who’ve been loyal supporters for over 25 years. Then there’s the matter of the anti-hegemonic vote – that the PPP may appeal to a voter who is predominantly rural, possibly low-caste, and reluctant to vote PMLN.

Pundits predict that the PPP suffers from a lack of dynamic leadership, an ailment that is felt keenly by the rank and file of the party. The PPP has failed to reach outside this comfort zone: observers correctly point out that the party has no message for the emerging and aspiring middle class in central and northern Punjab – people who’ve benefited from a boom in remittances and consumer goods, people who are interested in uninterrupted electricity and cars, and not roti, kapra and makaan. The question is – can the anti-establishment, pro-change vote go to the PMLN? Or will it go to that elusive third party, the spoiler newcomer, L’Enfant terrible of Pakistani politics, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf?

The simple answer is – no one knows. PTI chief Imran Khan will need to hit the sweet spot Z. A. Bhutto stumbled on in 1970: a sufficiently large vote bank based on the promise of material economic transformation (think land reforms, in the case of Bhutto) and local landed or petty bourgeois leadership. Similarly, PMLN will need to come up with a slogan smart and seductive enough to neutralize PTI’s spoiler effect, and crucially, it will need to reach out to PPP’s “safe” voters.

The tragedy of Pakistani politics, then, is this: both the major parties are running out of ideas, and the third party isn’t quite there yet. We are already seeing PPP and PMLN retreat to their comfort zones, shying away from creating cross-class, cross-regional consensus. The ensuing polarization and geographic fragmentation is dangerous. The only silver lining is that the very unpredictability of the polls is what makes them so attractive to all parties – fierce political competition may be terrible for growth, as the hand-wringing development experts will tell us, but it’s a pretty good incentive for democracy.

Bushra Zaidi is a pseudonym.

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One Response to PPP in the Punjab | Bushra Zaidi

  1. […] campaigns, to buy electables, and outright fraud. It lost in spite of several theories (including my own) on how the party, and how Zardari, could hold on to a sizable part of the lower house in […]

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