LAHORE - Is the nature of PML-N-PPP relationship changing? Are the statements being made by the leaders of the two parties really reflective of serious differences between them? Can they afford another fit of confrontation? Will the PML-N really abandon the PPP at a time the noose is being tightened on the latter?

These questions have arisen following the low-intensity “skirmishes” which seem to have blown into a full-scale war during the past few days.

There are three phases of the PML-N-PPP ties. First that started from 1988 and continued till 1999. The second from 2006 to 2015; and the third that started with the beginning of the current year.

The first phase was of serious confrontation between Mian Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Mr Sharif became the Punjab chief minister for a second time in 1988 when Benazir Bhutto was elected as the prime minister for the first time.

Mr Sharif was trying to emerge as a leader comparable to the PPP chairperson. His advisers had told him that confrontation was the best course for him to be seen equal to the prime minister.

Mian-BB became arch rivals to an extent that the chief minister did not like to spare time even to receive the prime minister during her visit to the provincial capital. Whenever she was scheduled to come to Lahore, the chief minister left for a visit to some other city.

In was during 1988-1990 that Mr Sharif prepared plans for the establishment of a provincial TV channel, Radio station, airline and even a bank. (Husain Haqqani was then among the advisers of the chief minister).

Although the PPP had a majority in the National Assembly, many parties were supporting Mr Sharif. It was during this atmosphere of confrontation that the opposition tabled a no-confidence resolution against Benazir Bhutto. Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi was projected as the candidate for the prime minister in case of the passage of the resolution. The Punjab government used its funds to buy legislators support against the PPP leader.

Although the resolution failed by less than a dozen votes, the PPP government could not complete its term because of many factors working against it.

The 1990 election led to the aggrandizement of Mr Sharif to the coveted office of the prime minister. Benazir Bhutto launched a movement against the PML-N government. She created a situation that led to the premature dismissal of the Sharif government in 1993.

In the next election Benazir became the prime minister for a second time and Mr Sharif launched a movement against her. Her government was again prematurely dismissed on multiple charges. The 1997 election brought Mr Sharif to power for a second time. The opposition played the same role which the PML-N leadership had played against the PPP government.

This time the prime minister shot himself in the foot by removing Gen Musharraf as COAS in October 1999.

Benazir Bhutto stayed out of Pakistan for several years and Mr Sharif, along with his family, was banished to Saudi Arabia by Gen Musharraf.

During these years the two arch rivals established contacts with each other. Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari visited the exiled PML-N leadership in Jeddah. Further contacts led to the signing of a Charter of Democracy in 2006. The two were convinced that if they did not join hands Gen Musharraf would keep them out of politics for as long as he could.

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 and the PPP was elected to power in 2008 election.

The PPP-led coalition revoked the 17th amendment which had barred a two-time prime minister or chief minister from holding these offices for more terms. This paved the way for the two Sharif brothers to re-enter the political arena.

The PML-N reciprocated the gesture by not creating any problem for the PPP government. It was because of this cooperation that the PPP completed its term.

When Mr Sharif became the prime minister for a third time as a result of the 2013 election, the PPP also cooperated with him. In fact although the leader of the opposition came from the PPP, he did not play any effective role.

The PML-N government faced a very tough situation when the PTI and PAT staged months’ long sit-in in Islamabad in 2014. The PPP acted like a party in power. Gen Raheel Sharif’s lack of interest in exploiting the situation created by the sit-ins saved the system.

Now the PPP is facing a difficult situation after the Rangers operation in Karachi. The PML-N leadership wants to keep a window of cooperation with the PPP open to deal with any unpredictable situation in future. But internal party differences are an obstacle. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan is determined to proceed against all PPP leaders involved in mega corruption cases.

The tension between the two parties has escalated to a point that the PPP has started demanding the establishment of a national government. The prime minister is trying to control the situation but nobody knows what turn the circumstances will take in the days and weeks ahead.

Detractors allege that the confrontation is a mock fight and the two parties will again be friendly friends in the near future.