Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addressing a public gathering at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh on December 27, 2023: the PPP’s decision to field Bilawal from the Lahore constituency, instead of Karachi’s Lyari constituency, is an effort to establish footholds in other provinces such as Punjab and also to project him as a national leader | AFP


February 8 holds not just the fate of power but the future of the PPP itself — a story paralleled, to some extent, by India’s Congress party.
Published January 7, 2024

As Pakistan heads towards elections on February 8, the air crackles with uncertainty. The country faces a complex symphony of challenges: a struggling economy, wobbly politics and ongoing security concerns. In this turbulent landscape, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) hopes to strike a chord with voters, aiming to capitalise on public discontent.

At an anniversary event in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh on December 27, 2023, commemorating his mother Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari introduced a 10-point ‘welfare’ manifesto, addressing issues such as hunger, poverty, unemployment and lawlessness, which the party hopes will resonate with the masses.

The party’s message is clear. “The old ways haven’t worked,” says Senator Taj Haider, the PPP’s central election chief. “The governments of the right-wing political parties have failed to deliver for the people,” he says, tacitly targeting the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). “Hope lies with the PPP, Pakistan’s only pro-poor party.”

But not everyone is convinced. Analysts point to the PPP’s fading influence, a stark contrast to its triumphant past.

Once a dominant force, with victories in landmark elections — such as in 1970 and in 1988 after the end of another military dictatorship — the party’s fortunes have plummeted. Cracks started appearing in the 1990s and, despite a brief resurgence in 2008 driven by a sympathy wave after Benazir’s death, the recent years have seen the party’s voice muted.

Can Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s decision to contest the elections from Lahore revitalise the fortunes of the PPP in Punjab and re-establish its position as a national force, or is the once mighty party destined to remain content with its unwavering stranglehold on Sindh?

The challenge for the PPP is not just winning back voters beyond its traditional stronghold of Sindh. It must also convince the nation that it can deliver beyond provincial politics and establish itself once again as a true national force. Evidence from recent years has not been too encouraging.

Can Bilawal, the young leader carrying the weight of his family’s legacy, rise to the occasion? This article will delve into the factors contributing to the PPP’s decline in the national elections, examining each province, and assessing its prospects in the upcoming February 8 polls.


On January 2, Bilawal arrived in Lahore to kick off his election campaign in the NA-127 constituency. He will be contesting the February 8 elections here, in addition to two other constituencies in Sindh. During his visit, he met the party’s Punjab leaders and attended various other party activities, including events to welcome several mid-level PML-N leaders into the PPP’s ranks.

The PPP’s move of fielding Bilawal from the Lahore constituency, instead of Karachi’s Lyari constituency, is perceived as an effort not only to enhance the party’s performance beyond Sindh province, its traditional stronghold, and establish footholds in other provinces such as Punjab, but also to project him as a national leader.

However, scepticism persists among party leaders and workers in Punjab regarding this strategy. “Daer aayad durust ayad [Better late than never],” says Muhammad Azam, a PPP supporter, welcoming Bilawal’s decision to contest elections from Punjab. “It’s a positive step that the party’s central leadership is now focusing on Punjab,” says Azam.

However, he believes that the PPP’s increased activities in Punjab until February 8 may not be enough to secure victory in the nationwide elections.

Another leader from Punjab in Lahore shares the same opinion: “We understand that this election, more like a selection process, is aimed at putting the PML-N back in power, and sidelining PTI from the electoral race,” he says in an off-the-record discussion. “The PPP seems to be in the election race primarily to save face for the party, by bringing in some electables to improve its position in Punjab in general.”


The PPP, a formidable progressive force in Pakistani politics, emerged in 1967 as a powerful force driven by collective dissatisfaction with the military regime of Gen Ayub Khan.

Under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the party pledged to create a socialist utopia, and his charismatic appeal, grounded in the promise of “roti, kapra, makaan” [bread, clothing, shelter], resonated widely, forming a coalition of labour unions, students, and peasants. This propelled Bhutto to power after the 1970 elections.

Challenges soon arose as Bhutto faced resistance to his nationalisation policies. Internal discord and the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 added complexities, exacerbated by the 1972 crackdown on the Karachi labour movement and, later, a military operation in Balochistan. Bhutto’s execution by Ziaul Haq’s regime marked a dark period for the PPP.

Surviving Bhutto’s death, Benazir Bhutto, his daughter, revitalised the party. Leading through exile and adversity, Benazir became prime minister in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s, despite the challenge of corruption allegations. Her tragic assassination in 2007 led to her son Bilawal’s joint leadership with his father Asif Ali Zardari.

The PPP, pivotal in Pakistani politics, has witnessed multiple periods in power. Bhutto and Benazir served as prime ministers in the 1970s and 1980s/1990s, respectively. Zardari held the presidency from 2008 to 2013. Despite these triumphs, the PPP has largely been reduced to a regional force, primarily in Sindh. In Punjab, its historical stronghold, connecting with a changing electorate has proved to be challenging. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), its presence is minimal, and in Balochistan, past mistakes linger.

Analysts highlight the stark decline in PPP’s fortunes compared to its glorious past. From the landslide victory of 59.4 percent (in then West Pakistan) in its inaugural 1970 election to Benazir’s triumphant return in 1988 with 44.9 percent of the vote, the party seemed destined for an enduring reign.

However, cracks began to show in the 1997 elections, with the PPP slumping to a meagre 8.7 percent share of the vote and securing only 18 out of 204 general NA seats, all from rural Sindh. The increase to 46 percent with 97 NA general seats in the 2008 elections, fueled by sympathy after Benazir’s assassination, didn’t last long. By 2018, the downward spiral continued, with the PPP capturing only 15.8 percent of the vote and a mere 43 out of 270 NA seats.

However, PPP leaders deny any weakening of the PPP’s grip across the country. “Past polls were riddled with manipulation,” Senator Haider asserts, recalling instances where PPP’s polling agents were ousted and election results were delayed for a week.

Analysts attribute the PPP’s decline in Punjab, its once dominant stronghold, and other provinces to a shift away from ideological politics, an increased dependence on patronage networks, and a reliance on selectable.

PPP leaders privately say that Benazir had begun the reliance on patronage tactics in the 1990s, mainly to counter the rise of the PML-N in Punjab. However, the strategy gradually alienated its core base and drove it to its rivals. 

 PPP leadership on stage during a campaign rally at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh on December 27, 2023: the shadow of Asif Ali Zardari, with his controversial reputation and business dealings, weighs heavily on the public’s perception of the PPP and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari | AFP
PPP leadership on stage during a campaign rally at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh on December 27, 2023: the shadow of Asif Ali Zardari, with his controversial reputation and business dealings, weighs heavily on the public’s perception of the PPP and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari | AFP


The 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto cast a long shadow over the party. Many analysts point to the lack of a leader with her charisma and magnetism as a key factor in the PPP’s decline.

According to Dr Asma Faiz, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, “The party hasn’t found anyone who can match Benazir’s ability to connect with people and inspire them.”

Part of the challenge is the Bhutto legacy itself. In his chapter on the PPP in the book Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving Between Dictatorship and Democracy, Philip E. Jones, a professor of intelligence studies and global affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona, writes, “Both Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto are seen as martyrs who upheld the essentially secular, nationalist and populist politics that characterised the independence-period Muslim League.”

But their son, Bilawal, the current party leader, struggles to match their stature and has not shown “the political capacity and intellectual power of his forebears, particularly [Zulfikar] Bhutto,” says Jones.

And the shadow of his father, Asif Ali Zardari, with his controversial reputation and business dealings, weighs heavily on the party.  “The two co-leaders have not advanced even a modicum of the party organisation they inherited, one of the PPP’s repeated weaknesses,” Jones writes.  


Analysts attribute the PPP’s decline in Punjab, its once dominant stronghold, and other provinces to a shift away from ideological politics, an increased dependence on patronage networks, and a reliance on selectable.

PPP leaders privately say that Benazir had begun the reliance on patronage tactics in the 1990s, mainly to counter the rise of the PML-N in Punjab, which she saw as bolstered by the then military establishment. However, the strategy gradually alienated its core base and drove it to its rivals. 

Majid Nizami, an analyst specialising in electoral politics based in Lahore, points out, “Zardari prefers to attract electables, feudal lords and industrialists into the party rather than focusing on grassroots people’s struggle. This approach has disillusioned PPP workers, causing some to either stay home or join the PTI.”

He highlights instances in 2015, when two prominent PPP leaders in Punjab — former minister of state Sumsam Bokhari and district president Ashraf Sohna — conducted press conferences and later joined the PTI in protest, expressing their dissatisfaction with the PPP leadership’s approach toward its workers in Punjab. In an emotional and tearful address, Sohana had said at that time, “There is no place for a jiyala [party faithful] like me in the PPP.”

However, PPP leader Haider says that the party has a strong grassroots presence, especially in Punjab. He emphasises that workers need both ideology, provided by the manifesto, and solid organisation, which the party has diligently built at the constituency level.

Jones writes, “The shift from ideology to pragmatism was visible under Benazir, while Zardari clearly preferred to engage in elite patronage politics.” He further adds, “Nonetheless, the PPP still has the Bhutto dynasty as its focal point of leadership, which frustrates some of the old guard who have defected to other parties and leaders, but [which] seems necessary in Pakistan’s political culture, where personalised leadership is the norm.” 

Jones also observes that, while the original ideological factions within the PPP have retained a somewhat shadowy existence, they have been overshadowed by the prominence of patron-client networks.

The ascent of PTI in 2011 shattered the dominance of the two-party system that held Pakistan captive for decades, leaving the PPP struggling for relevance.

PPP’s leaders privately acknowledge the party leadership’s past miscalculations, when the allure of Punjab’s vast electorate blinded them to the rising tide of the PTI. A former PPP candidate from Lahore laments, “We thought the PTI would only hit the PML-N, because both are right-wing parties compared to the PPP’s left-wing leaning, but we got caught in the crossfire.” 

This sentiment was echoed in the 2013 and 2018 results, where the PPP lost heavily in Punjab and KP, falling to third in most constituencies.

Nizami points out that the PPP secured the second position only once during the 2021 by-elections in Lahore, when PML-N’s Shaista Parveen Malik emerged victorious in the then NA-133 constituency, mainly due to the absence of a PTI candidate in those elections. It is the reason that Bilawal has chosen the same NA constituency to contest from, which has now been renamed NA-127 after the recent delimitations.  

For decades, the PPP’s identity in Punjab was built on its opposition to the Sharifs and Chaudries, both seen as representing the legacy of former military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq. Compromises with these rivals in Punjab alienated the PPP’s core support base, according to the experts and party workers. Nizami says, “In this situation, PPP’s workers found it challenging to sustain their traditional opposition politics against the PML-N, leading to the PTI stepping in to fill that void.”

Compromises with the PML-N and PML-Q have also eroded the PPP’s presence, even in South Punjab, which traditionally supported the PPP. Abid Lodhi, a political analyst who belongs to Bahawalpur, says that feelings of underdevelopment and deprivation intensified in South Punjab, leading to anti-PML-N sentiment among the local populace.

“The shift from an aggressive anti-PML-N stance to a reconciliation policy was considered a betrayal,” he says, “and therefore it caused PPP to lose its loyal support base in South Punjab and pushed it towards PTI.”

 PPP supporters during the party’s public meeting in Islamabad: in the 2013 and 2018 elections, the PPP lost heavily in Punjab and KP | White Star
PPP supporters during the party’s public meeting in Islamabad: in the 2013 and 2018 elections, the PPP lost heavily in Punjab and KP | White Star


In the upcoming elections, Sindh’s political landscape once again presents a familiar narrative: the PPP facing off against an alliance of various opposition forces.

This time, the PML-N has taken the lead in forging an electoral alliance, bringing together the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), and a few electables to challenge the PPP’s historical dominance in the province.

Analysts foresee some dents for the PPP, and perhaps the loss of a few national or provincial seats. Yet, toppling the Bhutto dynasty seems a distant dream. 

In Sindh, the PPP has consistently held a strong position, securing a significant number of seats in both the National Assembly and the provincial legislature since its inception. Historically, the party’s dominance was primarily confined to rural Sindh.

Despite facing a considerable setback in Karachi during the 2018 polls, where the PTI claimed 14 out of 21 National Assembly seats, the PPP recently demonstrated resilience by winning mayoral elections in Karachi and Hyderabad, along with by-elections on National Assembly seats in Karachi.

The PPP’s triumphs in general elections in Sindh are rooted in a multifaceted approach, experts say. Asma Faiz, the author of In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan, argues, “This includes maintaining a well-oiled electoral machinery in the province, securing sufficient winning candidates and, most importantly, adeptly positioning itself as the guardian of Sindh’s rights vis a vis the federation and other provinces, notably Punjab.”

“Sindhi voters crave competent governance,” explains Fayaz Naich, a Karachi-based journalist who hosts a current affairs show on a Sindhi-language TV channel, “but they haven’t found a credible and impactful alternative to the PPP.”

Naich says, “Anti-PPP electables, such as Pir Pagara, Larkana’s Abbasis, Badin’s Mirzas, Tharparkar’s Arbabs, or the Jatois of Dadu, are considered as PPP alternatives, but they remain local power players, lacking the broad appeal to sway the wider Sindhi electorate.”

Additionally, Sindhi ethno-nationalist groups are often seen as potential alternatives to the PPP, but without the heads of these groups, no one within the groups has the ability to contest elections, he said. 

Although the Bhutto legacy and dependency on tribal chieftains and spiritual leaders are factors, political experts argue that the PPP connects with Sindhi ethno-nationalist sentiments by consistently supporting causes championed by Sindhi nationalist parties.

“Unlike elsewhere in Pakistan,” Faiz explains, “the PPP behaves as an ethno-nationalist party in Sindh, vocally defending ‘Sindh-related issues’ such as water rights, provincial autonomy and financial devolution.” 

And most importantly, fear plays a subtle yet potent role in the PPP’s electoral waltz. Memories of ethnic tensions and anxieties about ‘outsiders’ grasping power fuel a sense of self-preservation among Sindhi voters. 

A political activist associated with a Sindhi ethno-nationalist group says, “Sindhi voters vote for the PPP to keep others, like the MQM or Pashtuns, at bay, even if they are dissatisfied with the PPP’s performance.” He says that the PPP skillfully exploits this insecurity, painting itself as the sole guardian of Sindhi interests against potential dominance by other groups.


In mid-December, amid protests in Turbat city following the extra-judicial killing of a Baloch youth by a law enforcement agency, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari addressed a public rally, making ambitious promises of development for the people of Balochistan. The rally also witnessed the high-profile induction into the PPP of former caretaker interior minister Sarfraz Bugti.

However, the PPP faces an uphill battle in Balochistan. Experts say that historical baggage significantly impacts the PPP’s ability to gain traction in the province.

The party’s founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s military operation to quell the fourth Baloch insurgency, after dismissing the 10-month-old National Awami Party (NAP) government and jailing its leadership — including the then chief minister Ataullah Mengal and governor Ghous Baksh Bijzenjo — remains a contentious issue for many Baloch. 

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washtington-based political analyst who studies Balochistan extensively, points out, “At that time, the PPP manipulated tribal rivalries between various Baloch tribes and used tribal figures like Ghous Bakhsh Raisani to counter the Baloch ethno-nationalists and even Nawab Akbar Bugti to advance its interests.”

In the decades following the 1970s insurgency, the PPP made efforts to rebuild its relationship with the Baloch people. However, except for the 2008 general polls, thanks to boycotts of three major ethno-nationalist parties — including the Balochistan National Party, the National Party, and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party — it never achieved dominance in the province.

Several factors favoured the PPP during 2008 polls, experts note. “General dissatisfaction with Gen Musharraf’s approach in Balochistan, particularly the killing of Nawab Bugti in 2006, created a need for a unifying figure to bring about reconciliation with disillusioned Baloch nationalists,” Akbar says. “Nawab Aslam Raisani of the PPP capitalised on this situation, garnering support from at least 12 out of 20 MPAs from the PML-Q.”

No mainstream national party, be it the PML-N, PPP, PTI, or PML-Q, genuinely enjoys public support or popularity in Balochistan. “They acknowledge this, which is why they often compromise on the standards for accepting members at the provincial level,” Akbar says. “As a result, they attract turncoats with a history of changing political loyalties.”

Although the PML-N recently gained attention with the mass defection to its ranks of several Balochistan Awami Party members, experts believe it doesn’t eliminate the PPP’s prospects of playing a significant role in the future Balochistan government. Akbar notes, “This is due to the unpredictable nature of Balochistan’s politicians, who are often influenced by powerful political quarters to switch loyalties and support a particular party or leader at any given time.”


PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s December visits to KP, aimed at rallying party supporters ahead of the polls, have evoked mixed reactions. While some view it as a significant move to fortify the party’s provincial standing, others remain sceptical because of ongoing challenges.

Although the PPP performed well in KP during the 2008 elections, forming a coalition government with the Awami National Party, mainly due to sympathy votes following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, subsequent elections have seen a decline, culminating in 2018 with the PPP managing only four seats in the 145-member KP assembly.

Interviews with party members and analysts point to internal factors, including the 2002 departure of Aftab Sherpao, a two-time chief minister who formed his own party, the PPP-Sherpao, which was later renamed Qaumi Watan Party (QWP). 

Lehaz Ali, a Peshawar-based journalist who is covering the province’s electoral politics extensively, says, “Like other political parties, including the ANP, the Jamaat-i-Islami, the PML-N and the QWP, the PPP was also adversely affected by the rise of PTI in KP. This led to disillusioned party leaders, former lawmakers and ministers being drawn towards PTI over the past decade.”

Ali cites factionalism and a disconnect between the central leadership and KP’s party structure as contributing factors, saying, “Frequent changes in provincial leadership without consulting grassroots members demotivates workers.”

In the 2018 elections, the PPP ran Bilawal from Malakand, a historically secure seat once likened to a mini-Larkana, hoping to galvanise the party’s provincial presence. However, the effort fell short, as he lost the seat to a PTI leader with a margin of over 40,000 votes.

Analysts observe that the PPP’s dependence on traditional landowning families limited its appeal, especially in light of the growing influence of a new middle class in the province. “In contrast,” Ali says, “the PTI in KP expanded its social base, reaching from the emerging urban middle class to both the urban and rural poor.” 

Citing a recent example of Swat Valley, Ali says that the PPP district president Dr Amjad Ali revitalised the party from scratch over five years but was denied a ticket in favour of Dr Haider Ali Khan, a turncoat politician from a landowning class, who won the constituency on the PTI and ANP tickets in the past polls. “This demotivates loyal party members,” Ali explains.

On December 31, Dr Amjad Ali announced he was abandoning the PPP and joined the PTI.


PPP stands at a pivotal moment — its once-vibrant flame, fueled by Bhuttoism and mass movements, flickers in the face of a changing Pakistani landscape. “New slogans, dynamic leadership, a grassroots revolution,” whisper party insiders who are seeking to revive the PPP, urging a move beyond ancestral glory. But it’s not clear if anyone in the leadership is paying heed.

The rise of the PTI, with its youthful energy and fresh narrative, has captured the imagination of a new generation. As analyst Jones observes, “Bhuttoism” holds little appeal for Pakistan’s millennials. “The new generation doesn’t even heed their own parents,” laments a party leader, highlighting the chasm between the PPP’s past and the present’s demands.

Can Bilawal breathe new life into the PPP? His candidacy in Lahore could be the catalyst for the party’s resurgence, but the weight of the past and the changing socio-political landscape present formidable obstacles. Only time will tell. 

One thing, however, is certain: Bilawal’s decision to contest elections from Lahore has at least injected excitement into the party’s support base. February 8 holds not just the fate of power, but the future of the PPP itself — a story paralleled, to some extent, by India’s Congress party.

The writer is a journalist and researcher who writes for The New York Times and Nikkei Asia, among other publications. He also assesses democratic and conflict developments in Pakistan for various policy institutes. He can reached at

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2024