What seemed inconceivable a year ago has come to pass. With its leader and his daughter in jail for corruption, its government dissolved, electoral candidates defeated, and ranks in disarray, the PML-N increasingly looks like a spent force destined to fade into political irrelevance. If the results of the 2018 elections are anything to go by, the PML-N’s attempts to cultivate a solid support base in Punjab over the past decade failed as it ceded ground to the PTI in Central and Northern Punjabi strongholds, and was unable to ensure or retain the loyalty of many of its ‘electable’ politicians. Matters are not helped by the ongoing legal troubles engulfing the party leadership; with Nawaz Sharif already incarcerated, there are signs that his brother Shahbaz and other party leaders are in the crosshairs of the courts and will likely remain embroiled in controversy for the foreseeable future.
Supporters of the PML-N can take some solace in the fact that most observers agree that the party suffered at the hands of a pre-election campaign aimed at cutting it down to size and preventing it from competing on a level electoral playing field. It is also interesting to note that even though the PML-N will be unable to form a government in Punjab, it managed to win almost enough seats to make that possible and, more importantly, lost by relatively small margins across the province. Given these facts, it is possible to envisage a number of scenarios in which the party is able to make a comeback; if the PTI were to end its term on an unpopular note, or if it were to fall out of favour with the establishment, a reinvigorated PML-N, possibly under new leadership (depending on the outcome of various court cases), might be able to emerge as a party capable of attracting both voters and candidates back to itself.
Before any of this can come to pass, however, there are several challenges that the PML-N will have to overcome, and it is by no means certain that the party will be able to do so. Perhaps the most important and significant of these will be ensuring its continued survival as an entity that can rely on the continued support of its legislators, electoral candidates, and party workers. Prior to the elections, much was made of how electables defecting from the PML-N to the PTI and other parties weakened the former’s electoral prospects. This is true, although the reasons behind such defections need to be understood; putting to one side the very real possibility that some of these defections were the result of coercion by unknown parties (hinted at in the press), the reality of politics in Pakistan is that most politicians see public office as a means through which to access state resources, both for personal gain or to cement their status and political support through the disbursement of patronage. Following this, parties that are not in government, or not expected to be in government, will be unable to provide their supporters with the same level of patronage as those that are in power. Sensing the changing political climate, many of the politicians who joined the PTI prior to the elections undoubtedly did so in order to be aligned with the party that seemed most likely to win, and it is quite possible that PML-N legislators and leaders will continue to do so in the months and years ahead. Indeed, talk of a ‘forward bloc’ of PML-N parliamentarians has been rife since election night, and it will be interesting to see how the party is able to maintain a unified front as the blandishments of power become increasingly difficult to resist, especially if the PTI’s tenure is relatively stable.
An important test of what the future holds for the PML-N will come in about a year, when fresh elections are held for new local governments. By design, the local government system created by the PML-N during its tenure was one that was aimed at reinforcing the power of provincial governments by leaving local governments beholden to them for access to funding and resources. If the PTI is able to use this fact to its own advantage, further centralizing the levers of powers in its own hands by winning at the local level, the PML-N’s problems will only be exacerbated. Like the PML-J and PML-Q before it, both of which were in government before they fell from grace, the PML-N may come to learn the enduring price of losing power.
The PML-N’s ability to deal with potential splits and defections will rest, in part, on its leadership and here, too, the party has much to do. While Nawaz Sharif’s ouster made Shahbaz’s ascension to the head of the PML-N inevitable in the short run, it remains to be seen if this is an arrangement that will last. For one, the younger Sharif has legal troubles of his own that are only likely to get worse under a PTI government. Even if that were not a concern, however, Shahbaz Sharif’s evident lack of charisma, his reportedly fractious approach to management, and his inability thus far to effectively counter both the PTI and the establishment, means that he may eventually turn out to be inadequate for the task of steering the PML-N into the future. How the PML-N navigates this crisis of succession, and how its leadership subsequently deals with both the success or failure of the PTI, will determine the party’s future.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.