Recent defections from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) show the gradually shrinking space for the once most popular party in the largest province of the country. The defections of heavyweight loyalists of the PPP not only expose the challenges of reorganising the party in the province but also prove how opportunism is overshadowing ideological activism on the political canvas of Pakistan.
The timing of this new wave of defections to the PTI from urban Punjab is also under discussion among the political and social circles. They are not sure whether it is a case of political expediency or there are some ‘invisible signals’, luring these politicians towards better options for their political survival.
A close look at the profile of defectors is not just a reflection on the party they are quitting but also the one they are going to join. Thus, questions are being asked of the PTI, a party that claims to stand for ‘change’, if this is the transformation it had promised to its voters.
Last week, former PPP Punjab president and ex-state minister Imtiaz Safdar Warraich from Gujranwala joined the PTI. In the earlier few weeks, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan from Sialkot, Nazar Muhammad Gondal from Mandi Bahauddin and Nawabzada Ghazanfar Gul from Gujrat announced having joined the PTI. In May, former PPP MNA Noor Alam Khan from Peshawar, a close aide to former president and PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, had joined the PTI.
In the view of some political analysts, the PPP has already written off Punjab and has opted for a ‘devil may care’ policy regarding the defections and show no resentment whatsoever. They believe the PPP electable class has been pushed to the wall to the extent that they have to struggle for their political survival in their own constituencies. They think the PPP top leadership plans to confine itself to the Sindh province and live with the image of a “regional party”.
During the time of campaign for elections of 2013, it was propagated that the PTI would break into the PML-N vote bank rather than attracting PPP loyalists and diehard jyalas. However, time has proved that it is the PPP loyalists who are defecting to the PTI. Likewise, if one looks at the by-polls in Punjab in the past two years, it becomes clear that the former PPP voters and sypmathisers are now voting for the PTI
Senior journalist Suhail Warraich believes the PPP has lost a lot of popularity in the Punjab province because of various reasons. “The PPP is not among the top two parties in Punjab at the moment. In Punjab, there is always competition between the top two parties (dharrey bandi) and, therefore, the electables in the PPP don’t want to give up in this political race for better survival.”
“More defections from the PPP to the PTI are expected as the time for general elections comes closer,” says Warraich, adding that since the space in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz PML-N is already occupied “that is why these defectors prefer the second option”.
The PPP insiders admit differences and divisions in the ranks of party leadership and a constant neglect of them by the party top leadership, amid contradictory policy statements of party’s chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari.
On the other hand, party chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, reacting to these defections by its veteran members, said “a few ‘uncles’ had parted ways with his mother in the 1980s. Therefore, if some of them are also leaving him, it doesn’t really matter.”
Some insiders say the reaction of party leadership on the parting of ways of loyalists “is enough to portray the party situation”.
Qamar Zaman Kaira, former federal minister, who is now president PPP central Punjab, whose name was also counted among the possible defectors a year ago, terms these ‘stalwarts’ leaving the party as “political opportunists” and “people who left in difficult times”. “These electables were in ministries in good days by parted ways in difficult times.”
However, he says, the PPP does not rely on electables but diehard workers. “Workers are the strength of the party and not the electables. People who think the PPP has given up in Punjab are misled. They should keep in mind that the PPP never gives up. People left the party even when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in power but the party remained intact and popular. The coming general elections will show our strength which appears undermined these days,” adds Kaira, dispelling the impression that the elections will be among top two parties.
“It is almost the end of the PPP in Punjab. It has lost its popular support base and that has pushed many influential political families to think of better prospects. They see better prospects in joining the PTI,” says analyst Rasul Buksh Rais.
The reason for this, in his view, “is a major social change in the middle class of Punjab which is mostly disillusioned from the rest of the political parties. The youth and the middle class are taking the PTI as a reflection of movement. And it is not only an urban phenomenon. But even in rural areas, affluent land owners and even ordinary cultivators and small farmers seem unhappy with the agricultural policies of the ruling PML-N.”
Earlier, in July 2015, the PPP former minister of state, Samsam Bokhari, and a former Punjab minister, Ashraf Sohna, from Okara defected to the PTI. Later, another former senior minister in Punjab Raja Riaz from Faisalabad said goodbye to the party in May 2016. Sardar Bahadur Khan Sehar and Malik Niaz Jhakar from Layyah, Aamir Dogar from Multan, Sardar Saif Khan Khosa from Dera Ghazi Khan and Qayyum Jatoi from Muzaffargarh also left the PPP.
The family of former PPP Punjab-governor Chaudhry Altaf Hussain also joined the PTI in 2015 and his nephew Fawwad Hussain Chaudhry contested a recent by-poll in a constituency in Jhelum from a PTI ticket.
What does the PTI feel about accepting these turncoats in its fold? Ejaz Chaudhry, president PTI Punjab, says the party policy is to welcome all those who defect from other parties. “This shows party’s popularity graph and grassroot level effect. However, the party’s parliamentary board will decide near elections whether they are eligible for election nominations or not.”
Chaudhry says “there is some resentment within the party on joining of such politicians but as a policy we welcome everybody who wants to join. The propaganda regarding the image of the party is aired by our political rivals because they are unhappy on these defections.”
“This political opportunism and survival issue is above the ideological bases of political parties which are already weakening, particularly in the case of the PPP in Punjab,” says Warraich adds.
“In the 1970s, these strong political individuals joined Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In the 1980s, many PPP many of these stalwarts tilted towards military dictator General Ziaul Haq. Similarly, after 1998 a large number of politicians defected from the PML-N to Musharraf strengthening Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam (PMLQ),” Warraich goes on to explain how defections happen close to elections.