All bets are off. Conventional wisdom suggests that the 2018 elections should have been a walkover for the PML-N. Indeed, until a few months ago, there would have been few observers willing to suggest otherwise; a stranglehold on the networks of patronage and influence in Punjab, the gradual centralisation of power in the hands of the party leadership, and a not disastrous record of governance over the past decade meant that, under normal circumstances and assuming a relatively free and fair electoral contest, the PML-N should have been able to repeat its performance in the 2013 elections, give or take a few seats across the country. The PML-N was once again poised to be the largest party in parliament, not necessarily because of its mass popularity amongst the electorate, but because of its skill at manipulating the levers of electoral competition.
Instead, it is becoming increasingly evident that the PML-N is in trouble, and the sources of the party’s travails are not difficult to identify. Firstly, and most importantly, the party continues to suffer from the fallout of the Panama Papers Case, which ended with Nawaz Sharif being removed as Prime Minister of Pakistan, and with him being disqualified from holding public or party office for life by the Supreme Court. This decision, which was based on a excessively broad interpretation of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution (requiring elected representatives to be honest and trustworthy), had the effect of removing the PML-N’s most well-known and popular leader from the electoral playing field and while Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have tried to mobilise support for themselves and their party in the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgments, it is clear that Nawaz Sharif’s political career is probably over. Indeed, the prospect of being convicted by an accountability court for corruption in the near future only exacerbates Sharif’s political woes.
Secondly, the PML-N’s electoral fortunes have taken a further hit as a result of a series of judicial decisions that have ended up disqualifying several of its top leaders, with more likely to follow. Ishaq Dar and Khawaja Asif have been barred from politics (or are in the process of being barred) by the Supreme Court using logic derived from the decision to disqualify Nawaz Sharif, and other leaders including Ahsan Iqbal and Saad Rafique face similar judicial proceedings. While these individuals represent only a fraction of the party leadership, and while their disqualification does not in itself alter the electoral calculus, the fact that such prominent party leaders are being attacked does little to alter the perception that the party is under siege, and that it is slowly but surely being weakened by the various court cases that have been launched against it.
Thirdly, it is often easy to overlook the fact that the overall health of the economy usually has a bearing on the electoral prospects of incumbent governments. When the PPP ceded power to the PML-N in 2013, it was in no small part due to the ability of the latter to attack the former on the basis of their economic performance and lack of governance, best encapsulated by the PPP government’s seeming inability to tackle the power crisis. Five years later, the PML-N finds itself in a similar position; while the government has been quick to claim credit for the modest economic growth and macroeconomic stabilisation of the past half-decade, it is now becoming clear that the economy faces serious challenges on the external front with an increasing debt burden and current account deficit. Matters are not helped by the return of loadshedding; in an ironic twist of fate, the fact that the government has been able to add thousands of megawatts to Pakistan’s power generation capacity has failed to fully address the power crisis, as underlying structural issues involving the provision of fuel to power plants and the pricing of electricity have meant that the country is witnessing a return to hours-long power cuts just as temperatures begin to soar with the onset of summer.
Taken together, the political and economic headwinds buffeting the PML-N have created the perception that this is a party in crisis. Defenders of the PML-N, including Nawaz Sharif himself, have long been arguing that it falling victim to a plan hatched by the country’s security establishment, which is accused of using the courts to cut the PML-N down to size while simultaneously working behind the scenes to cultivate parties like the PTI which could conceivably be used to fill the vacuum left behind by the party’s implosion. Given Pakistan’s political history, this is not an unbelievable scenario, and it is certainly difficult to shake the feeling that the current wave of accountability sweeping the country has been selective in its targets.
Nonetheless, regardless of the veracity of the PML-N’s claims, perception is everything. Whether or not the party is being taken down by the establishment, the widespread belief that it is ceding ground to its rivals will undoubtedly affect its electoral prospects. The most obvious way in which this can happen is if the perception of weakness leads to defections from the PML-N to rival parties, most notably the PTI in Punjab. This process has already begun, as can be seen from the defection of a small number of southern Punjabi legislators in the past few weeks and can only be expected to accelerate as the government in dissolved and an interim administration is put in place, depriving the PML-N of some of the patronage-based mechanisms it might otherwise employ to keep its leaders and candidates in line. Indeed, this is arguably what underpins Prime Minister Abbasi’s otherwise inexplicable decision to expand his cabinet just weeks before the end of the government’s tenure; official appointments are an important source of patronage, and are simply being used to reward, or demonstrate a willingness to reward, strategically important party members.
Whether it is because the party is being weakened after being rightly held accountable for corruption, or because it is falling victim to plots being hatched by non-democratic forces, the perception of weakness will hurt the PML-N when the country goes to the polls later this year. Having said that, some outcomes are more likely than others; simple electoral arithmetic suggests that while the PML-N may lose its majority in the National Assembly, it is unlikely that the same will happen in Punjab (although it majority may be considerably diminished in the provincial assembly). In this context, is seems reasonable to assume that by the end of this year, Pakistan will be governed by a host of coalition governments at the provincial and federal levels. Some would argue that this is a recipe for instability, and they would not be entirely wrong. Whatever happens, however, things are likely to get even more interesting and uncertain as the country moves closer to election day.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.