October issue 2002
The Rise of the King’s Party
The Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) started as a small group of half a dozen like-minded people in the PML-N, including Mian Azhar, Khurshid Kasuri, Abida Hussain and Fakhr Imam in defiance of Nawaz Sharif and his family’s monopoly on the party. Before the local government elections in 2002, the group expanded and took the form of the PML-Q.
The administration, armed with the NAB stick, pressured local PML-N leaders and former legislators to defect and join the PML-Q. The majority obliged. In the 2000-01 non-party local government elections, most of the councillors and district nazims belonged to the PML-Q.
In May this year, the Punjab Home Secretary, Ejaz Shah, and Inspector General Police Punjab, Asif Hayat, went on a whirlwind tour of more than 20 districts of the province using the Governor’s plane to meet and inform local administration that the PML-Q is the establishment’s favourite party. The Punjab Governor, Khalid Maqbool, also followed their lead and soon, a large number of PPPP local leaders began defecting to the PML-Q, all over Punjab. The Principal Secretary to General Musharraf, Tariq Aziz, supervised the consolidation of the King’s Party in Punjab’s rural areas where 90 per cent of the electoral constituencies lie. At least two-thirds of the candidates fielded by the PML-Q are either former PPP or PML-N legislators.
A joke doing the rounds in Punjab is that all the leaders are with the PML-Q while the voters are with the PML-N and the PPPP. Though this may not be strictly true in the rural areas where traditional political families still wield considerable clout, in the urban areas, it holds water. The PML-N remains the most popular party in cities like Lahore and Rawalpindi.
The difficulty with the PML-Q is that former Punjab Governor, Mian Azhar, the president of the party, has not been able to emerge as a national leader. Though considered to be an honest gentleman, he has no charisma or national appeal. That may be one reason why the PML-Q has still not announced its leader of the house, in case the party wins a majority. The PML-Q has conceded at least 30 National and Provincial Assembly seats to the Millat Party in an electoral adjustment.
In Punjab, the People’s Party was routed in the 1997 elections when it failed to win a single National Assembly seat from the province. In the 1993 elections, the party lost all the urban seats for the National Assembly. However, the local government elections in 2000-01 rehabilitated the party’s standing in the province and PPP candidates won in large numbers, emerging as Punjab’s second largest party after the government-patronised PML-Q.
The split of right-wing votes between the PML-N, the PML-Q and the religious parties led to the success of the PPP proving that the PPP vote bank was intact. Any split in the anti-PPP vote bank has always gone in the party’s favour. The same calculation is what party leaders are banking on in the upcoming elections. With party optimism at a high about winning a majority, the PPPP has not entered into an alliance with the PML-N or the Muttahidda Majlis-i-Amal. The efforts of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan to turn the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) into an electoral alliance, failed to materialize because of the PPPP’s refusal to make any alliance or go in for seat adjustments with the PML-N or the MMA.
The PPPP’s strength in the Punjab, especially rural Punjab and the southern districts, did not go an noticed by its rivals. PML-Q Punjab President, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, has repeatedly said that the real contest will be between his party and the PPPP.
Seeing the PPP’s strength, the PML-Q and its patrons in the government moved to break the PPPP at the local level. In the last few months, at least 100 local leaders and former PPPP legislators have defected from the PPPP to join the King’s Party in various districts of the provinces. Thus has weakened the PPPP in the rural areas, where individual influence counts more than in the urban areas.
Still, if PPPP voters remain loyal to the party and turn out to cast their votes on October 10, the prospects of the PPPP are brighter than any other opposition party. Ms. Bhutto’s return to the country, even if she is jailed, will further boost the chances of the party at the hustings.
The faction of the Muslim League nurtured by the establishment, in the late 1980s and 1990s to contain the People’s Party is now out in the cold. The Sharif family is in exile in Saudi Arabia and has been declared ineligible to stand in the elections.
Until his ouster from power in December 1999, Nawaz Sharif benefited as leader of the anti-Bhutto and rightist constituency in the Punjab. He was the first Punjabi leader who put up an effective challenge to the Bhutto family and united all anti-Bhutto forces behind him.
Once he fell from power, Nawaz Sharif made a U-turn, making overtures to the PPP for forging an anti-establishment alliance. Evergreen alliance-maker, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, cobbled together his umpteenth alliance, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), and the merging of two erstwhile political rivals could have led to a movement against military rule, had the Sharifs not used this opportunity to strike a bargain with the military rulers to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. Though this caused a setback to the alliance, it remained intact.
The party’s strength centres on Nawaz Sharif and the Sharif family’s influence in the Punjab, especially in the urban areas of the central districts in the province. The administration worked hard on local PML-N leaders who defected in large numbers to the PML-Q in the last three years. The party does not have more than 40 former legislators in its fold in the province, though the majority of the workers are still with the Nawaz faction.
To keep supporter morale high in their absence, the Sharifs relied on media management at which they are past masters. Columnists in Urdu papers kept the Sharifs in the limelight by writing that Shahbaz Sharif did not go into exile on his own volition and was in contact with the establishment and would soon be brought back. A few months ago, some senior journalists, including Majid Nizami, tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise between the Sharif family and the military regime. The Sharifs did not agree to the establishment’s conditions of relinquishing the party’s leadership and merging with the PML-Q. As a token gesture, Nawaz stepped back and appointed his younger brother, former Chief Minister of the Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, president of the party, but this cut no ice with the military.
In the aftermath of the setback to their image caused by their deal with the military, the Sharifs went in for damage control by snubbing the establishment the second time around. The Sharifs’ media managers spread stories that an alliance between the PML-N and the PPPP was in the offing and that both parties would soon unite to oppose the King’s Party in the upcoming polls. This attempt too came to naught when the PPPP refused to enter into an alliance or seat adjustments with the PML-N.
Though the alliance of the religious parties, the Muttahidda Majlis-i-Amal, was keen to make an electoral alliance with the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif gave it the cold shoulder. The two parties now have seat adjustments in some districts only. By refusing this alliance, it seems that PML-N does not want to ally itself with the anti-US rhetoric of religious leaders, nor does Sharif want to relinguish the reins of his party to Qazi Husain Ahmed of the Jamaat-i-Islami.
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the electoral alliance of the main religious parties — the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan, the Jamiat Ulema Islam (Fazl), the Tehrik-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema Islam (Sami) and the Jamiat Ahle Hadith — is the only group contesting these elections on anti-US rhetoric.
The religious parties had more than a 15 per cent vote share in the Punjab in the 1970 elections, but since then, their vote base has eroded. In the 1990 elections, the religious parties won a few seats thanks to their alliance with the PML-N in the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad. In the 1993 elections, Qazi Hussain Ahmed lost the national seat in Lahore with a big margin. The Jamaat’s influence does not extend to more than 10 seats where it has 3000-8000 votes. Seeing the party’s poor position, Qazi Hussain Ahmed boycotted the 1997 elections.
In the upcoming October elections, the Jamaat went the extra mile to harness all the main sectarian parties into an electoral front. Qazi Husain Ahmed made Shah Ahmed Noorani head of the alliance, despite the fact that the latter’s party was in bad shape in the Punjab. The unity of the alliance, however, suffered a setback with the departure of Maulana Sajid Mir, head of the Jamiat Ahle Hadith. Mir is close to Nawaz Sharif and was unhappy with Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Shah Ahmed Noorani on the meeting of Qazi with General Musharraf in August. It is believed that though the two sides could not resolve their differences, General Musharraf succeeded in reaching some sort of understanding with the Jamaat chief. After this meeting, the anti-Musharraf rhetoric vanished from the speeches of Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Shah Ahmed Noorani.
The religious parties low vote bank in the Punjab was more than evident in the train march launched by the MMA to kick off their campaign. When Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Shah Ahmed Noorani, along with top leaders of the alliance arrived at Lahore’s railway station, there were barely 2000 people present. The alliance has a few strong candidates in Lahore, like Liaquat Baloch and Hafiz Salman Butt who are supported by the PML-N with whom they have made seat adjustments.
The MMA have an organized cadre of workers and funds to run an effective campaign, as well as fiery anti-US rhetoric to charge the atmosphere, but so far it has failed to garner any support from the masses. If the US invades Iraq before the polls, it may go in favour of the religious parties’ alliance because they will capitalize on anti-US sentiments, otherwise, it will be hard for the alliance to win more than a couple of national seats from the Punjab.
Though Tehrik-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan initially supported General Musharraf, when pro-government parties joined hands to form the National Alliance, Imran Khan did not join it. Soon after, he leveled charges of pre-poll rigging against the government, with Tariq Aziz, Principal Secretary to General Musharraf, the main target as the mastermind behind pre-poll rigging in the Punjab.
In 1997, Imran Khan lost the elections from Mianwali, but this time around his chances appeared bright till the Chaudhrys of Gujrat started supporting Imran Khan’s opponent, Ubaidullah Shadi Khel. Imran Khan unleashed a vitriolic campaign against Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, alleging the two leaders had got their loans written off and were therefore ineligible to contest elections. The Chaudhrys soon retaliated and accused Imran Khan of using charity for Shaukat Khanum Hospital and Jewish money for his politics.
Though Imran Khan may win his seat from Mianwali, his party seems to have little support base to win a national seat. However, his party’s candidates are likely to secure more votes than what they got in the previous elections. If the voters in Punjab decide to leave the PPPP or the PML-N, the most likely major beneficiary will be Tehrik-i-Insaf. Even if the party fails to win many seats, it will cause a dent in the vote bank of the PPPP.
Former President Farooq Leghari’s Millat Party is a beneficiary of state patronage. Farooq’s propaganda that he may become prime minister in the post-election scenario has helped him to consolidate his party in a few districts and more than 10 PPPP local leaders have defected to join his party in the last few months. The Millat Party is contesting elections on a small number of seats from the Punjab with an electoral adjustment with the PML-Q and are unlikely to win more than half a dozen seats.