Can the Sharifs woo back battleground Punjab?
With Nawaz Sharif’s return, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz is looking to strengthen a shaky grip over Punjab, and testing again its tricky relationship with the military establishment
The dates of Pakistan's impending general elections are yet to be announced, but Punjab has already started to see frenetic political activity in the last few weeks, arguably more so than any of the country's other provinces. With 141 seats to its name in the 342-seat National Assembly, Pakistan's most populous province is crucial for any political party looking to win the elections and form the next central government. Leading the charge is the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML–N): the party's flags are being raised all over the provincial capital, Lahore, and the party supremo, Nawaz Sharif, is expected to return to Pakistan on 21 October from London to boost its campaign.
This is a momentous step for Nawaz. After the courts stripped him of the post of prime minister on questionable grounds of failing to disclose his assets and sentenced him to prison, he has stayed away from Pakistan since leaving in 2019 for medical treatment. A court just recently granted him protective bail, barring authorities from arresting him immediately on his return, but Nawaz is soon due in court, and the risk of arrest down the line remains. The high-stakes gamble is apparently worth it for the PML–N: it needs Nawaz, today more so than in a long time, to help it cement a hold over its bastion. Though the PML–N is a Punjab-based party with a history of victories in the province, its fortunes here appear to have declined in recent times. Now it faces the daunting task of recovering from the political damage caused by extremely questionable economic policies while it led Pakistan's last government, which just recently ceded power to a caretaker regime in preparation for the upcoming vote.
The PML–N cemented its status as a major power in Pakistan's politics, when it emerged as the single largest party at the national level in the 1997 general elections, with the vast share of its seats in the National Assembly won in Punjab. In Punjab's provincial assembly, the party secured over four-fifths of all seats. Nawaz became prime minister, and his brother Shehbaz – who was himself prime minister from 2022 until just recently – became the Punjab chief minister.
This dominance was erased by the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999. The regime broke the PML–N into at least two groups by creating the rival Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PML-Q) and forcing the Sharif brothers into exile until Musharraf's ouster in 2008.
After dismal numbers in the 2002 elections, the PML-N's fortunes began to change again when Pakistan voted in 2008. It won more National Assembly seats from Punjab than any other party, and emerged as the main power in the provincial assembly too, though without a simple majority. Then came the 2013 elections, with the PML–N taking roughly a third of the National Assembly and putting Nawaz back in the prime minister's chair, and winning a thumping majority in Punjab. The province seemed very firmly back in the Sharifs' hands.
But the PML–N's soaring popularity and resulting power was seemingly too much for the country's military establishment, which has never felt comfortable with civilian politicians it cannot readily tame. Though Nawaz emerged on the political scene during the era of Zia ul-Haq, the dictator of Pakistan until 1988, and was the leader of the establishment-backed Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in the late 1980s and 1990s, his tendency to assert his own authority never suited the military, leading it to oust him as prime minister directly in 1999 and later indirectly in 2017. A member of FAFEN (Free and Fair Election Network), an independent civil-society network monitoring elections and electoral politics, told me that the 2013 election results spurred the establishment to build alternative political forces in Punjab. The obvious counter to the PML–N was Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the darling of the establishment until a bitter fallout last year, and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP), a new party representing the Barelvis, a Sunni sub-sect.
The PTI had become proactive before the 2013 elections, when it won a modest number of national and provincial seats, but it rapidly gained resources and popularity in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. The upstart TLP emerged just a year before the 2018 vote, when the ruling PML–N was accused of amending elections laws and changing a declaration required of all candidates for office proclaiming their faith in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Islamic prophet Mohammad. This gave the TLP a reason to hold a long sit-in protest in Islamabad, which proved crucial to its rise. A subsequent judgment by the Supreme Court of Pakistan unearthed the role of the establishment in using the TLP – and its sit-in – as part of its interference in politics.
The outcome was clear in the 2018 elections. A senior PML–N member later told me that the TLP, which emerged as the fifth-largest party in Pakistan, divided the PML–N's vote-bank. The polling organisation Gallup Pakistan concluded that if the TLP had not existed and its voters had supported the PML–N, the latter would have won at least 13 more seats in the National Assembly. In Punjab, the TLP affected the results in at least 17 constituencies, to the disadvantage of the PML–N. The biggest winner, of course, was the PTI, which relegated the PML–N to second place nationally and in Punjab, and took the posts of both prime minister and Punjab chief minister.
With the next elections likely in early 2024, the PML–N's challengers in Punjab include both the PTI and the TLP. With Imran Khan in jail and the PTI in complete disarray since the events of 9 May, when the party's supporters reacted to Khan's arrest earlier in the day by storming military installations and residences in Lahore, its challenge seems to have become weak. The TLP, however, remains a significant factor. At the same time, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), in decades past a dominant force in Pakistan's and Punjab's politics, is also attempting a comeback, especially in southern Punjab.
The PPP's hope is to tap into the area's pool of "electables" – powerful candidates who tend to switch their loyalties to whichever party they deem most likely to win, banking on the patronage that is sure to follow power. They are backed by a strong landed elite, have a history of electoral victories and typically enjoy higher chances of success than any other candidates. Quite often, these "electables" are also key to the fortunes of political parties in Punjab. In the 2018 elections, a vital factor in the PTI securing Punjab's chief ministership was that at least 24 independent candidates – mostly "electables" – joined the party in Punjab after the vote, making the PTI the province's largest party.
According to some PML–N officials, for the 2024 elections the party is keen to offset its poor economic performance in power by bringing such "electables" into its ranks. But that will likely take some persuasion, since the PML–N has much to answer for in the popular mind. The last government, with its coalition led by the PML–N, imposed a withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies, hammering the finances of the country's masses. This move was forced upon Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund as part of a much-needed bailout to sustain its teetering economy, but there has been little popular forgiveness for the government's acquiescence. That government also tried to blame the preceding administration under Imran Khan for worsening economic conditions, with runaway inflation and massive devaluation of the Pakistani rupee, but again it has not been able to deflect responsibility. The PML–N is more vulnerable on this front than other coalition partners such as the PPP because it controlled the ministries of finance and planning and development, and was all along in the spotlight as the party in charge of the economy.
If Nawaz goes on to be arrested, to complete a pending jail term, it could affect the PML–N in two ways. First, Nawaz's arrest could galvanise the party's voter base, which seems dormant due to the party's dismal performance in the coalition government, and split across its various factions. (The PML–N stalwarts Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail, for instance, are planning to launch a new party for the next elections.) Earlier this month, Nawaz directed Shehbaz not to hold any more rallies in Punjab until his return, and to address intra-party rifts. Second, Nawaz's return could also alienate the PML–N from the establishment, pushing the latter to support other parties in Punjab – for instance, the PPP – to undercut the PML–N and keep it from becoming the single largest party in either the province or the National Assembly.
On the other hand, a deal with the establishment, while it could ensure Nawaz's smooth return and the PML–N's electoral success, will also leave the party permanently vulnerable to the interests of un-elected forces. This could, for instance, see the PML–N hampered in the pursuit of economic reforms, curbing radical ambitions of reducing the defence budget, taxing the military's extensive businesses or ending generous subsidies for the country's elites. The resulting lack of revenues to spend on the masses would create pressure on the party from its voters, which could once again pit Nawaz against the establishment. In that scenario, even victory in the 2024 elections will leave the PML–N far from a long-term consolidation of its preeminence in Punjab, let alone Pakistan.
But politics in Pakistan is hardly driven by the imperatives of institutionalisation and long-term consolidation. With the establishment seen, as one PPP official told me earlier this year, as a "permanent" player in Pakistan, all parties tend to fashion themselves in ways that secure the establishment's support in order to win elections and stay in power – even if that same establishment's changeable desires mean that staying in power for very long is something that seldom happens.