They may still be a year away, but it is clear that the next elections are beginning to dominate the agendas of the major parties. Even as the PML-N struggles to deflect attention away from the Panama Leaks and bolster its support base through a fresh wave of spending on public infrastructure, the PTI continues to hammer the ruling party with allegations of corruption, hoping to reap the electoral benefits of any decision against the Sharifs in the Panama Case. However, as these two parties jockey for position, it is likely that the 2018 elections will see the culmination of a process that began under Zia-ul-Haq and almost came to fruition in 2013; the elimination of the PPP as a major party in Punjab.

Much has been made over the past few years about the emergence of the PTI as Pakistan’s most significant opposition party. The rise of the PTI has been attributed to many things – the charisma of its leader, its message of change, and its relentless campaign of protest – but what has often gone unremarked is the extent to which the party’s rise has come at the expense of the PPP. Indeed, while the PML-N has largely been able to consolidate and build on its existing vote bank (particularly after accommodating defectors from the PML-Q between 2008 and 2013), the significant share of the vote captured by the PTI in 2013 cannot simply be attributed to newly registered and young voters amidst higher turnout since, contrary to popular opinion, the political preferences of these groups are more diverse than is often realised. Instead, it might be reasonable to assume sections of the electorate opposed to the PML-N defected to the PTI from the PPP, with the latter being discredited partly because of its poor record in government, but also because of its inability to generate any enthusiasm or momentum for itself. If the PML-N in 2013 stood for development and growth, and the PTI stood for change and accountability, it was never really clear what the PPP believed in or promised to deliver. Matters were not helped by how the PPP in Punjab, like the PML-Q, was hit by a wave of defections that further weakened its organisational strength and capacity to mobilise support.

Since 2013, the PPP has repeatedly claimed that it is on the brink of renewal, with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari vowing to reinvigorate the party’s fortunes in Punjab. That this has failed to happen is plain to see and it is not difficult to see why. For one, as has been discussed in this column in the past, the institutional landscape of Pakistani politics has been undergoing a slow but radical transformation since 2008, with the devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th Amendment and the creation of local government beholden to the ruling parties at the provincial level ensuring that opposition parties across Pakistan simply lack the means through which to access and disburse state patronage or exercise an effective check on their counterparts in power. This provincialisation of politics – with power and the levers of patronage being placed in the hands of the provincial governments – has meant that parties have an incentive to consolidate their hold over their respective provincial strongholds while simultaneously confronting an increasingly adverse and difficult electoral landscape in other parts of the country. Put simply, while the PPP can make effective use of its control over Sindh to discipline its politicians and mobilise the support of its voters, both through the judicious use of state patronage, it has no such tools at its disposal in Punjab, where the PML-N has systematically centralised power in its own hands.

This does not mean that the PML-N cannot, for example, be challenged in Punjab. As the PTI continues to show, sustained campaigning and a positive message (in this case, against corruption) can exert pressure on a ruling party and while this may not be enough to win an election, it has certainly shown itself to be sufficient to capture the imagination of a significant section of the electorate. The PPP, on the other hand, continues to be hamstrung by the not entirely unwarranted perception that it is both corrupt and incompetent, and the party has done little to challenge this notion. Matters are made worse by reports that the party continues to experience tremendous internal disarray, with activists and politicians expressing discontent with the lacklustre way in which the PPP’s leadership has gone about addressing the party’s declining fortunes. Indeed, the past few weeks have seen a number of high profile PPP politicians, including Firdous Ashiq Awan and Babar Awan, defect to the PTI for precisely this reason.

Lacking a clear identity or positive message, haemorrhaging support from its workers and electoral candidates, and doing little to stem its organisational unravelling in Punjab, it seems increasingly clear that the PPP, a party that swept the polls in the province during the 1970s, is well on its way to becoming nothing more than a part of Punjab’s political past. Content to rest on its dubious laurels in Sindh, the PPP has effectively ceded political space to its rivals in the rest of the country, and can no longer legitimately claim to be Pakistan’s only truly ‘national’ party. This is unfortunate, if only because there is a need for an active and diverse opposition to counter the PML-N’s electoral juggernaut. While the outcome of the Panama Case may yet dent the PML-N’s electoral prospects, there is still every reason to believe that the party is well-placed to triumph over its rivals next year and given the PTI’s own travails, it is likely it will need all the help it can get to challenge the PML-N’s tendency towards centralisation and autocracy.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science  at LUMS.