In 2018, parties seeking to challenge the dominance of the PML-N in Punjab will confront a difficult and challenging electoral landscape. Barring unexpected events of the sort that have dislodged governments and derailed democracy in the past, the PML-N will have completed a decade of rule in Punjab by the time the next general elections are held, managing to accomplish the unprecedented feat of holding on to provincial power for two successive terms.

While it would be premature and, indeed, presumptuous to pre-judge what voters will decide when they cast their ballots two years from now, there is some reason to believe that the PML-N will find itself in a relatively favourable position. For example, in the time it has ruled over Punjab, the party has made much of its investment in the province’s infrastructure, exemplified by its showcasing of projects like the Metro Bus and Orange Line train in Lahore, as well as a plethora of roads smaller cities and the countryside. This model of ‘development’ rightly has its detractors, who emphasise its utter lack of focus on economic redistribution and social welfare, as well as its environmental impact, but these criticisms often miss the point; roads and similar infrastructural projects are visual metaphors for the party’s ‘performance’, and may prove to have tremendous electoral value; after all, the PML-N might say, the achievements of its government are visible for all to see, while those of its opponents are conspicuous by their absence. This claim would be supplemented by the not entirely inaccurate argument that hundreds of thousands of people across the province will have directly benefitted from the PML-N’s infrastructural agenda. It would be correct to point out that the money spent on these expensive projects could have been better utilised elsewhere, such as in the construction of schools and hospitals, but this approach seems to have garnered little popular traction thus far.

It’s record on ‘development’ aside, the PML-N might also point towards another one of its accomplishments, namely the establishment of an institutional order in Punjab. This is a claim that merits caveats and clarification. Unlike other parts of Pakistan like Karachi, characterised by violent contestation between rival parties, ethnic groups, and criminal gangs, Lahore’s politics (and Punjab’s) suggests the presence of a certain stability, with the often fractious conflict of the 1990s giving way to a more routinised cycle of largely non-violent electoral competition. This is also contrast with KPK, where the fallout from militancy and military operations in FATA, coupled with the province’s often rambunctious electoral politics, continues to stymie the PTI’s attempts to emerge as the dominant political player there. The PML-N has little to fear from its competition, as demonstrated by collapse of the PPP and the PML-Q in the province, as well as the inability of the PTI to mount an effective challenge to its power, and its currently inhabits a political space characterised by the absence of a credible opposition. However, unlike interior Sindh where the PPP has historically enjoyed a similar political monopoly, the PML-N can arguably claim that it has presided over an administration that is more effective and responsive than the lackadaisical one the currently reigns over Sindh.

The institutional order the PML-N presides over in Punjab is buttressed by the party’s deliberate attempts to centralise power in its own hands. Almost a decade of rule at the provincial level, coupled with control over the federal government since 2013, has placed the PML-N in a relatively unique position whereby it can make use of its political monopoly to cast itself as the sole, credible purveyor of state patronage in Punjab. This has important effects on the bureaucracy, whose members now face an incentive structure within which transfers, postings, and privileges are tied to the maintenance of a good relationship with the ruling party, and on traditional constituency politicians, whose capacity to win elections and acquire rents through the disbursement of patronage depends on the existence of linkages with the PML-N. The local government structure put in place by the PML-N has only deepened the party’s power in the province by ensuring that local councillors, mayors, and other elected officials will remain reliant on the goodwill of the provincial government for discharging their responsibilities.

The benefits of unchallenged incumbency – the co-option of the bureaucracy and political elites, the control over local government, the opposition of credible political adversaries, and the ability to push forward a narrative of successful ‘development’ – are self-evident, and raise interesting questions about the future of democracy in Punjab and, indeed, the rest of Pakistan. After all, while the PML-N and its supporters might laud the province’s stability and order, it is also clear that the current institutional order is not particularly participatory, inclusive, or democratic. By monopolising the levers of state patronage, and by rewriting the rules of engagement to tilt the electoral balance in its favour, the PML-N continues to actively cultivate an environment in which its can exercise control freed from the constraints imposed by the presence of other parties and loci of power that can hold it accountable and put forward alternative visions for society. After all, the PML-N was and is a party of the Right, unapologetically committed to the promotion of an inherently inequitable capitalist economic system, and enjoying an often uncomfortably cozy relationship with religious extremists. Like Turkey’s Erdogan, a leader the Sharifs clearly seem to admire and emulate, it seems that the PML-N would be perfectly happy to function as authoritarian democrats, brooking little opposition to, and input into, their governance agenda.

As I have argued before, the PTI does not, in my opinion, present a credible alternative to the PML-N. For all the rhetoric that has characterised the antagonistic relationship between the two parties, the fact is that they are more ideological similar than they might be willing to admit. Furthermore, the PTI lacks the organisational capacity to effectively take on the behemoth that is the contemporary PML-N.

However, as the PTI moves to hold intra-party elections, and seeks to re-organise itself in Punjab, it would do well to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead. Taking on the PML-N is vital for the health of Pakistan’s democracy, and no party will be able to do so unless it is able to put together an ideological narrative, as well as a party apparatus, that can reasonably expect to compete on such a lopsided electoral battlefield.