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A defection here, a defection there

As Nawaz Sharif’s anti-establishment rhetoric gets intensified amid large scale defections from his party, the integrity of PML-N still does not seem too much at risk

A defection here, a defection there

Two prominent members of the National Assembly (MNAs) belonging to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in central Punjab — Mian Tariq Mehmood from Gujranwala and Nisar Ahmed Jutt from Faisalabad — joined Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in February and March this year. The party leadership simply ignored the development. No one from the party tried to contact the quitting MPs.

In the words of senior journalist and analyst, Nusrat Javeed this was because party positions are so well-entrenched in these districts: “One or two odd defections don’t mean the PML-N would lose entire cities.”

In complete contrast is the situation in Southern Punjab where political parties do not matter; so-called electables including feudal and tribal sardars and pirs dominate politics. They have their own vote bank and can get elected to assemblies without the assistance of political parties. It is in South Punjab that there were defections of six ruling party MNAs and 14 members of the provincial assembly (MPAs). However, this unsettled the provincial leaders of the ruling party so much that they decided to contact the quitting MPs.

Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif specifically asked his close associates to desist from issuing statements which could further annoy the MPs who had left. Speaker National Assembly initially refused to accept their resignations and senior leaders of the party were asked to meet and convince them to reconsider their decision.

Considering these dynamics within the province, it is not surprising that the six members from South Punjab who quit the ruling party were elected as independents in 2013 parliamentary elections and only later joined the ruling party, “We are not ideologically beholden to PML-N. We were elected as independents and later joined the ruling party out of our own will,” says Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar, leader of Janoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz, who en masse joined PTI.

So effectively, the defections from the ruling party will largely go unnoticed in central Punjab, though it may require local adjustments which will be left to the whims of party ticket-holder in the next elections. But the situation in South Punjab is totally different. Here it requires the intervention of the national leadership of the ruling party. “Defection as a trend can cause more harm for PML-N in South Punjab. In Central Punjab, its effects will be minimal; however, it will vary from constituency to constituency,” says Javeed.

In Gujranwala, Mian Tariq Mehmood’s defection was largely ignored by many of his colleagues in the party. “His decision will hardly make any difference. As for the reasons behind his decisions, you should ask him (Mian Tariq Mehmood),” says Rana Umer Nazir Khan, another PML-N MNA from Gujranwala.

“Defections can cause more harm for PML-N in South Punjab. In Central Punjab, its effects will be minimal; however, it will vary from constituency to constituency,” says Nusrat Javeed.

Initially, it was expected that Mian Tariq Mehmood would lead PTI’s campaign against Sharif brothers in Gujranwala city. However, now it is not even clear whether he is getting the PTI ticket or not. “I am a candidate for PTI ticket for National Assembly. The final decision however depends on the party committee,” says Mehmood while talking to TNS.

Sources within PML-N say that both Mian Tariq Mehmood and Nisar Ahmed Jutt changed loyalties on account of their complaint that the ruling party didn’t do anything to stop the merger of their traditional constituency into another constituency in the process of delimitation carried out by the Election Commission of Pakistan, affecting their ‘favourite’ position in the election.

Mian Tariq Mehmood denies this. “Initially I had problems with the delimitation process but not anymore. I am satisfied with the final delimitation. I left the party because these two brothers [referring to Sharifs] think too highly of themselves and refused to meet me even once during the five years. I had many issues.”

These types of local grievances are playing a major role in the defections in the ruling party in central Punjab. However one senior ruling party member, on condition of anonymity, tells TNS that despite the prevalence of local grievances against the ruling party leadership in central Punjab, the defection has failed to be a general trend in this sub-region. In his view, the strategy of Shahbaz Sharif not to become part of aggressive posturing of his elder brother towards the military establishment is bearing fruit in central Punjab. “A defection here, a defection there is hardly a problem. A few dents in the large ship called PML-N can hardly make it sink.”

 

The fear of large-scale defections or outright disintegration of the ruling party became a common prediction among political analysts in the months after the Panama verdict. Unlike his brother, some say, Shahbaz Sharif’s strategy not to speak a word against the military establishment and to project himself to be on the right side of the establishment helped him in keeping the ruling party intact in central Punjab. All along, the young Sharif kept sending out signals that he was not in favour of confrontation with the military establishment. Interestingly, there were no signs of him coming under the accountability axe.

Many, however, think this might change in the days after the completion of the tenure of the ruling party. “Who knows the state will come after Shahbaz Sharif once he ceases to be the chief minister of Punjab” says Javeed. “I think if they (establishment) want to make more people defect, they will have to come after Shahbaz Sharif, otherwise it won’t work for them”.

The fact that ruling party has so far defied all predictions about its disintegration also proves the point there is no systematic effort to break the party into factions. Besides, two of the ruling party leaders, Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who have the potential to preside over large factions of the ruling party have publicly dissociated themselves from any such plans. However, the integrity and cohesion of the ruling PML-N will be tested in the months leading up to the election as Nawaz Sharif’s anti-establishment rhetoric is likely to get intensified.

For the past few weeks, there were rumours in the political circles in the capital that some of the ruling MNAs in South Punjab were facing pressure from military-led intelligence agencies to part ways with the ruling party. One such MP whose name kept propping up was Muhammad Iqbal Shah who was elected member National Assembly form Lodhran. “I am not facing any pressure from anywhere to part ways with the ruling party. This is wholly incorrect,” says Shah while talking to TNS.

South Punjab, however, is a different story. Here, diverse groups are coming together to part ways with the ruling party, “We are in touch with majority of the MPs from South Punjab. There will be many more defections in the days leading up to elections,” says Khusro Bakhtiar, who has left PML-N having stayed under its umbrella for five years. “South Punjab province is now part of the PTI manifesto. People will vote for PTI now that we have joined the party,” he adds.

Politicians from diverse background are joining PTI. It seems unlikely it is happening without any systematic manipulation.

Umer Farooq

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Umer Farooq is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He specializes in writing on politics, foreign policy and security issues.

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