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Analysis: New Punjab CM to scramble for space

Updated August 25, 2018

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Acting Governor Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi administers the oath to newly-elected Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar at Governor House on August 20.—APP
Acting Governor Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi administers the oath to newly-elected Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar at Governor House on August 20.—APP

LAHORE: Immediately after his election as majority party’s leader in the Punjab Assembly last Sunday, Sardar Usman Buzdar stood up in the House to shut up his detractors and defend his “surprise” selection by his leader Imran Khan for the position of chief executive of the country’s largest province.

“…those questioning my selection for this job should know that I’m well aware of the problems facing the people from the poorer regions of the province. I know how the poor live in the backward areas. I know the plight that faces the underprivileged because I belong with them. That is my qualification for this job,” asserted Mr Buzdar who was sworn in as Punjab’s 26th chief minister the same evening.

Ironically, the words uttered by the newly elected chief minister in defence of his elevation to the post were directed more at his fellow members from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — the party Mr Buzdar had joined only weeks before the general election — than the opposition benches.

Handpicked by Mr Khan himself, Mr Buzdar’s choice for the job had surprised — and somewhat confused — many in the party, because they expected someone from the ‘old guard with deep pockets’ to be picked up for leading the PTI government in Punjab — the province still known to be the stronghold of rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in spite of its defeat in the last polls.

Muted resentment within the party notwithstanding, Mr Khan stood by his nominee insisting that he had handpicked Mr Buzdar to be the first chief minister from Punjab’s backward tribal backyard after “due diligence” and found him to be an honest man.

After having defended himself, Mr Buzdar went on to lay out his government’s priorities before the assembly. “Our first objective is to ensure effective governance in the province and break the status quo,” he declared before he went on to court the sceptical PTI legislators by promising to devolve his powers to them by fully empowering them and treating them as “chief ministers in their constituencies”.

Opinion is divided on the factors that led Mr Khan to prefer a lesser known politician from a remote region over a few stronger contenders for the job from central Punjab. Political analysts like senior journalist Suhail Warraich argue the choice of Mr Buzdar for the CM office shows that the provincial government will be “remote-controlled” from Islamabad.

“Imran Khan has handpicked two politically unknown men as his chief ministers in both the provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where his party won a majority. It’s probably because he wants to see his political agenda implemented (without any hurdle and difficulty) there,” he contends.

Mr Warraich points out that the PTI’s political future in Punjab depends largely on the performance of its government. “The PML-N has been voted out of power because of prevalent discontent in the urban middle class. Those who have voted the PTI into power want immediate change and they will judge the party on the basis of its performance and not on feel-good speeches. If the PTI succeeds in delivering on its promises, it will be able to develop a loyal vote-bank in Punjab and keep its control over the province.”

However, there are people who think that Mr Khan should have chosen a stronger man for the position to deliver effectively.

They argue that Mr Buzdar’s predecessor, Shahbaz Sharif, had “successfully created a large constituency” for his controversial governance style and model of development as he had all the freedom to choose his own team (owing to his being the deputy of his elder brother Nawaz Sharif in the province) to deliver. But Mr Khan has created several “centres of power” in Punjab with Chaudhry Sarwar in Governor House, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi controlling the Punjab Assembly and Aun Chaudhry standing in for the prime minister in Punjab. “Surrounded by these powerful people, a politically inexperienced Buzdar will be scrambling for space to freely take decisions that could adversely affect his ability to effectively govern the province,” a Lahore University Management Sciences (Lums) professor argues on the condition of anonymity.

Some party insiders, nevertheless, claim that Mr Buzdar is a “stopgap” arrangement. He has been given the post as more well-known and stronger candidates for his job from the Jahangir Tareen-led group try to “get their names cleared by the law over the next three months”. He might eventually be asked to withdraw once a “more eligible” candidate is available to Mr Khan, so goes the theory.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018