March Issue 2008
The Dark Horse
The February 18, 2008 elections have yielded surprising results, at least in the Punjab. Most political pundits had predicted that the PPP would have a slight edge over the PML-N in the Punjab as a consequence of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Also, the PML-Q, with some strong candidates, was expected to secure a sizeable share of seats, both in the National Assembly as well the Punjab Assembly. However, voters have proved most of the political pundits wrong. The PML-N has made a very impressive showing at the polls and, once again, has emerged as the largest party in the Punjab. It has won 59 out of the 147 National Assembly seats from here; the PPP stands second in the tally with 45 seats and the PML-Q is third with 30 National Assembly seats. In all, the PML-N has won 67 out of the 272 National Assembly seats, which means more than 90% of its share in the National Assembly comes from the Punjab alone. Incidentally, the majority of the seats it has captured are from central Punjab. The party has almost made a clean sweep in all the districts along the GT road, such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Jhelum and Chakwal. The other areas where the PML-N has won a majority are Pakpattan, Narowal and Sheikhupura districts. The PML-N has won 43 out of a total of 67 National Assembly seats from these nine districts of the Punjab alone, while the PPP has, as expected, won the majority of the National Assembly seats from the Seraiki belt of the province.
The results of the Punjab Assembly are also not very different from those of the National Assembly. The PML-N has succeeded in garnering 104 provincial assembly seats out of a total of 297 general seats, while the PPP is, once again, in second position with 80 members, and PML-Q stands third with 68 seats. The independents number 35. The victory of the PML-N in the Punjab can partially be explained by the anti-incumbency factor and Nawaz Sharif’s clever strategy to position himself as being anti-establishment. He spoke highly of the deposed judges and dwelt extensively on the issues of the common people, such as the price hike, the flour shortage and the energy crisis. The PML-N leadership has used the uncertainty prevailing in the country prior to the elections, to its advantage.
Mian Nawaz Sharif and his party ran their campaign along scientific lines. They held hundreds of small and medium-sized political rallies in central Punjab. Moreover, in some constituencies of Lahore, they even held political gatherings at the union council level. They also used the Internet and mobile phones to reach a wider audience. They sent voice mails in which Mian Nawaz Sharif advised voters that if they wanted to avoid long queues to get flour, all they had to do was stand in a queue just for one day, February 18, and vote for the PML-N. The PPP, on the other hand, was in mourning after Benazir’s assassination and the central leadership did not hold any significant rally in the Punjab, except for the one in Faisalabad on February 14, which was also attended by Asif Ali Zardari. Faisalabad is the only district in central Punjab from where the PPP has won the maximum number of seats (six out of 12), which clearly goes to show that the presence of the top leadership does help drum up support and garner votes in a general election. Even so, the PPP’s expectation of a massive sympathy vote following BB’s assassination proved unfounded. It was the Sharifs who won the day.
Another reason for the PML-N’s impressive showing in the Punjab was the decision of the Jamaat Islami (JI) to boycott the elections. The JI has a significant vote bank in central Punjab, and in the 2002 general elections it had succeeded in winning three National Assembly seats just from Lahore. The PML-N not only succeeded in winning over the JI’s loyal vote bank (which has no less than 10,000 voters in many constituencies, especially in urban Punjab), but also fielded certain candidates who would otherwise have contested on a Jamaat ticket. Reportedly, the JI, while espousing a boycott of the elections, encouraged its supporters to vote for the PML-N.
Now that the elections are over, the main issue before all parties in the Punjab is the formation of a government, and the PML-N, being the majority party in the province, has the democratic right to form the new government. Understandably, Sharif himself is more interested in forming the government in the Punjab rather than at the centre, as his party’s power-base lies in the Punjab. Moreover, it is the provincial government that is responsible for running most of the day-to-day affairs that matter to politicians and their voters at the local level. Also, the most important departments, such as police, education, health, revenue and irrigation are all under the control of the provincial government. Further, the PML-N will not get the flak in case the judiciary is not restored, as it is not a provincial but a federal subject, and the PPP is most likely to head the centre. In fact, so far the PML-N has not demanded a single ministry at the centre and, in return, is hoping that the PPP will do likewise at the provincial level. Incidentally, the power-sharing formula between the PPP and the PML-N at the provincial level has not been discussed between the leadership of the two parties as yet, but the PPP is determined to bag the slot of speaker of the Punjab Assembly and some important ministries in the new Punjab cabinet for itself.
Nonetheless, the PPP has assured the PML-N of its support in forming the government in the Punjab. The PML-N is also in contact with all elected independent candidates, winners from smaller parties, as well as some PML-Q MPAs. Mian Nawaz Sharif has already offered the PML-Q legislators, sans the Chaudhrys of Gujrat and a few others who, according to him, were responsible for breaking up his party, re-entry into the PML-N. Mian Shahbaz Sharif, who has been nominated as the parliamentary leader of the PML-N in the Punjab, claims that his party has succeeded in winning a simple majority, which will enable it to form a government in the province. In addition, three MPAs of the PML-F, two MPAs of the MMA and 22 independent candidates, out of 35 elected to the Punjab Assembly, have already announced that they are joining the PML-N, while at least five PML-Q MPAs have assured the party of their support in forming the government in the province.
Though the PML-N is in a good position to form a government in the Punjab, no member of the Sharif family has been elected to the Punjab Assembly. Therefore, they need someone to head the Punjab government during the transition period of a month or so, before one of them (Shahbaz Sharif or his son Hamza Shahbaz) gets elected as an MPA in the by-elections and takes over as Punjab chief minister. It is being rumoured that they are unwilling to trust anybody outside the family to head the government, even for the transition period. The name of Mohsin Latif, a young MPA from Lahore who is the nephew of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, is being discussed as a possible choice for the position of Punjab chief minister at party meetings.
Incidentally, the formation of a new government is not the only challenge faced by the PML-N in the Punjab. There are a host of issues to be sorted out by the new government. A major reshuffle in the top bureaucracy and the police ranks in the Punjab is on the cards because, in the last five years, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi had developed an amicable working relationship with the current set-up in the province, which the new chief minister will obviously want to replace with his own team. The IGP Punjab, Ahmad Nasim, has already been given early retirement from his service, while the principal secretary to Pervaiz Elahi, G.M. Sikander, has been transferred to the federal ministry of population welfare. Meanwhile, many other top bureaucrats in the province are trying to contact the Sharifs to offer their support or manoeuvre transfers from the Punjab to the centre.
The future of the district, as well as the town and tehsil nazims, an overwhelming majority of whom belong to the PML-Q and who naturally supported PML-Q candidates in the 2008 elections, is also in jeopardy. The new governments, both at the centre and the province, will not tolerate them and they will either be forced to leave office through internal recall (no-confidence motion) or external recall (according to an amendment in the local government ordinance, if the chief executive of the province thinks that the continuance of the zila nazim in office is against the public policy or interests of the people, or if he is guilty of misconduct, the chief executive may move a motion in the provincial assembly stating the grounds for his recall). The same procedure can be followed for the removal of the town or tehsil nazim, unless they decide to support either the PPP or the PML-N, as did the district nazim in Sahiwal, who joined the PML-N.
However, the people of the province are not exactly concerned with these transfers and removals. All they desire is relief, as was promised by the PML-N and the PPP during their election campaigns. “I just want to see the prices of flour, ghee, vegetables and all other necessities come down, as was promised by Mian Nawaz Sharif before the elections,” says Muhammad Asif, 35, a labourer and resident of Lahore. Simply goes to show that the journey — and the problems — of the Sharifs have only just begun.