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Smokers’ Corner: PML-N’s gradual shift to the centre

Updated December 04, 2016
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

During a high stakes by-election in Lahore’s NA-122 constituency back in October, 2015, I began noticing tweets from some ‘liberal’ acquaintances in Lahore urging people in the aforementioned constituency to go out and vote for the PML-N. An hour or so later, three good friends of mine who resided in the area, and who had voted for the PPP in 2008 but for no party in 2013, also unabashedly tweeted that they had gone and voted for the PML-N contestant.

The PML-N candidate managed to bag a narrow victory against his main Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) opponent in the by-election. Many months later when I was in Islamabad for some work, I connected with a member of the Pakistan Institution of Legislative Development (PILDAT) — an independent think-tank focused on political and public policy research.

Even though my meeting with him was about research that I was conducting for my second book, the NA-122 by-election also came up and I shared with him my observations. He said he wasn’t surprised. According to some PILDAT surveys, he said, a bulk of PPP votes in the Punjab were now going to the PML-N. During the 2013 general elections, many ‘disgruntled’ PPP voters had opted to vote for the PTI but trends in almost all by-elections in Punjab between 2014 and 2016 suggest that a majority of traditional PPP votes are being cast in favour of the PML-N.


Since 2013, Nawaz’s party has bagged crucial votes by responding to the liberal populace’s need for political representation and articulation


One of my Lahori friends who had voted for the PPP in 2008 but switched to voting for the PML-N in the NA-122 by-election, agreed with the observation when I met him recently in Karachi. He proudly broadcasts himself as being an ‘unflinching liberal’, and claims that a growing number of young urban progressives in the Punjab are now willing to vote for the PML-N. The PILDAT man had described this as ‘strategic voting’ by a largely liberal section of Punjab’s urban middle-class which is suspicious of PTI’s populism and believe that its vote would be wasted if it continued to vote for the PPP in the Punjab where the party’s vote-bank is rapidly eroding.

The PILDAT gentleman believes that the tendency of a large section of Punjab’s urban middle-class and Punjab’s liberal and progressive sections now willing to vote for the PML-N is an interesting development. He says that this trend should be seriously explored by researchers and that the PML-N too had become aware of it. This awareness, he says, was mainly due to the ‘fact’ that had this section not gone out and voted for PML-N in the NA-122 by-election, the PML-N candidate might have actually lost!

The PTI candidate lost by just 2,443 votes and the PILDAT man believes that votes from the ‘liberal’ section of the constituency helped the PML-N candidate keep his nose slightly ahead in the tight race. My Lahori friend believes the PML-N has been shifting towards ‘a staunch centrist position’ (from the right) when the ‘left-liberal’ PPP is failing to turn ideology into policy as the PTI now ‘looks more and more like a populist right-wing party.’


During the 2013 general elections, many ‘disgruntled’ PPP voters had opted to vote for the PTI but trends in almost all by-elections in Punjab between 2014 and 2016 suggest that a majority of traditional PPP votes are being cast in favour of the PML-N.


Well, that was his reading. But even a quick look at PML-N’s ideological evolution can somewhat substantiate the above-mentioned claim. In 1993, Mian Nawaz Sharif broke away from the Pakistan Muslim League to form his own faction. The League that he was a part of was formed in 1985, when the Gen Zia dictatorship encouraged various Muslim League splinter groups to come together and form a united League.

These factions had been existing ever since the Muslim League of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had begun to disintegrate from the mid-1950s onward. The League was originally a modern centrist party, but when it was pieced together again in 1985, it became a conservative outfit which was close to the Zia dictatorship.

In 1988, it became a member of the right-wing multiparty alliance, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI). The IJI won the 1990 elections and Nawaz became the PM. But the League again broke into various splinter groups and PML-N became the largest faction. PML-N adopted the 1985 League’s social and political conservatism, but put a lot more emphasis on economic liberalisation.

After the second PML-N regime was toppled in a military coup in 1999 and Nawaz was sent into exile, the party began to gradually offload the socio-political conservatism that it had adopted in the 1990s. It began to shift more towards the centre but was still championing wide-scale economic liberalisation. In fact, it believed that most economic ventures (which required foreign investment) were not possible due to the cumbersome conservatism which the party had adhered to in the past.

The PML-N came second in the 2008 national elections but managed to form a provincial government in Punjab. For a short while, it became an active ally of the new PPP-led government in the centre but soon quit to sit on the opposition benches. Its government in the Punjab succeeded in clearly articulating its economic programme.

The party came to power after it swept the 2013 elections and has continued to articulate and implement its version of economic liberalisation and development while evolving a moderate social outlook. In this context, the PML-N of today is nothing like what it was in the 1990s.

It has settled on becoming a centrist outfit which continues to shift towards a more decisive middle-ground on various issues. The party has retained its large vote-bank among the petty-bourgeoisie and the trader and business communities of Punjab and the Hindko-speaking areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But it might now be developing an additional (and a whole new) constituency in urban Punjab which sees the PPP as being just too weak in the province to keep out radical conservative groups and also the anarchic shape-shifting populism of the PTI. A most interesting development indeed.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 4th, 2016