THE future of the newly installed PML-N government in Punjab looks more precarious after the impending notification of five PTI members on reserved seats for women and minorities. The outcome of the coming by-elections on 20 provincial assembly seats could well seal the administration’s fate that is hanging by a thread. The Punjab crisis may change the whole course of Pakistani politics.
The prospect of the fall of an already teetering administration in the country’s biggest province could make the situation increasingly untenable for a fractious coalition set-up at the centre. The prolonged instability in Punjab has a direct bearing on the federal government struggling to implement the tough and unpopular policy measures required to stabilise the economy. Can the current dispensation sail through choppy waters? The next few weeks could be critical.
Punjab has been in the midst of a political crisis triggered by the move to oust the then PTI government led by (former) chief minister Usman Buzdar. A controversial election, marred by physical scuffles between rival parliamentarians, elected Hamza Shehbaz, the son of the prime minister, as the province’s chief minister. Despite having the support of 25 PTI defectors, including five members on reserved seats, the PML-N candidate returned with a very thin majority.
He, however, could not take up his position for weeks because of the then governor’s refusal to administer the oath of office, leaving the province without an effective administration. With the appointment of a new governor, the cabinet is now in place. But the political uncertainty has persisted.
It is evident that Imran Khan’s populist politics has helped the PTI regain its support base.
With the de-seating of 25 PTI defectors, the fate of the chief minister is uncertain. There had been serious doubts about whether he has the confidence of the truncated assembly. The Lahore High Court ruling this week instructing the Election Commission to notify five members nominated by the PTI against the vacant seats has further complicated the numbers game.
In the April 16 election, boycotted by the PTI and its allies, Hamza Shehbaz got 197 votes, including those of 25 PTI dissidents and some independent members. But the de-seating of the PTI renegades that has reduced the number of his supporters in the House to 172 has left the chief minister with less than what is required to establish a majority in the assembly.
On the other hand, the notification of five PTI members on reserved seats would increase the opposition’s strength. With 20 seats at stake in the July 17 by-elections, the balance could swing either way. But it is not likely to produce political stability in the province, given the narrow margin of difference between the two sides. The odds seem stacked against the PML-N in the coming by-election, given the swelling public support for the PTI.
Moreover, the granting of tickets to PTI deserters is likely to divide PML-N supporters. While the choice of candidate may make the predicament of the ruling party worse, the PTI has played it safe by relying entirely on electables, contrary to Imran Khan’s so-called campaign against dynastic politics and pledge to give preference to ‘ideological’ members.
Most of the defectors were elected as independents, and later joined the PTI, helping the party form the provincial government with a thin majority. Many of them have a history of aligning themselves with any party in power. It may also be pressure from the security establishment that forced them to join the PTI.
Their defection to the PML-N, when the chips were down for the PTI, too, was not surprising. They have strong individual electoral support bases in their respective constituencies but it won’t ensure victory for them in the fast-shifting political scenario. It also can’t be taken for granted that PML-N supporters will vote for candidates not from their party’s ranks. Perhaps, it will be even harder to get them to vote for former PTI members.
Local rivalries are an important factor in constituency politics. Their individual vote bank alone won’t ensure victory for them in a highly charged political atmosphere. Moreover, the ruling party candidates would find it hard to defend some of the economic measures that are fuelling the rising cost of living.
It is a completely different situation now than it was before the fall of the Imran Khan government in April. The PTI is now using the same issues — spiralling food inflation, increase in the prices of petroleum products and a worsening economic situation — that it faced while in power to whip up anti-government sentiments.
It is evident that Imran Khan’s populist politics has helped the PTI regain its support base to the advantage of its candidates in the critical by-elections. If the opinion polls are to be believed, there has been a significant increase in the former prime minister’s popularity in Punjab which has always been considered the bastion of the PML-N. By-elections would certainly be a test of the political strength of the two adversaries.
In order to survive in power, the PML-N needs to win at least 16 of the 20 seats being contested that will give it a bare majority in the assembly. Most indicators show that such a sweep may not be possible for any side. It becomes much more difficult for the PML-N to win the numbers game with some dissenters in its own ranks. Five party members had abstained from voting for Hamza in the April 16 elections. The game is far from over.
More importantly, the fate of the 10-party coalition government at the centre, that hinges on a two-vote majority, is also linked to the outcome of the battle for Punjab. In a bold move, the ruling alliance has decided to continue to hold on to power until the end of the assemblies’ term. But the Punjab crisis has made things harder for the Shehbaz Sharif government that is trying to stabilise the political and economic situation.
The prospect of losing Punjab has generated further political instability in the country. With Imran Khan out to destroy the entire political edifice, the country is moving towards greater political and economic uncertainty. Even early elections in this highly polarised political atmosphere may not help stabilise the situation.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2022