After the disqualification of Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif last month, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has opted for seeking the support of ‘people’s court’ and shown its political strength through carrying out the ‘home-coming’ rally from Islamabad to Lahore. Terming the ‘ouster’ of Sharif from the prime minister’s house as its ‘great achievement’, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has already started preparing for the upcoming general elections, which they believe, may take place earlier than scheduled.
In all this heated and changing political atmosphere, where does the Pakistan People’s Party stand? What happened to the Charter of Democracy that leaders of the PPP and the PML-N had signed in exile for strengthening the democratic process in the country? Is the PPP playing the role of opposition effectively? Is the party preparing for the general polls?
These questions are part of a debate that is going on not only among the political circles but also within the ranks of the PPP.
PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and other central leaders have repeatedly said the PPP would not protect Sharif as he had always stabbed it in the back after returning to power. Sharif, before starting his GT Road rally, had suggested that “before the upcoming general polls, a grand national dialogue and new social contract needed to be worked out and the forthcoming polls could serve as a referendum on it”. So far, the PPP has rejected his offer.
“This time, I will not even attend his [Sharif] phone call. It will not sign any new reconciliation agreement with him,” said Bilawal in a press conference in Islamabad on August 11. He said the PPP had never supported the PML-N but had stood for democracy in the past many years. “If there is a danger to democracy today, we will stand with democracy. But at this moment, there is no threat to it. There is only threat to Sharif’s own survival and for this we cannot help.”
Analysts think that the recent political events have placed the PPP in a critical position. “Its support will be sought by its two adversaries: Sharif and the establishment. Sharif intends to open a debate on constitutional changes that can prevent the transformation of his ouster into long term exit from the corridors of power. The establishment would like to encourage Sharif’s isolation as the third party the PTI holds similar plans for him. Secondly, in the future electoral scenario PPP will be a crucial player in the case of a hung parliament and Asif Ali Zardari is likely to be the kingmaker again,” says Raza Rumi, the editor at the Daily Times.
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After Sharif’s ouster, the PPP has been working hard to remove the party’s tag as a ‘friendly opposition’ to the PML-N and now adopted an aggressive policy against the ruling party.
Asmatullah Wazir, an Islamabad-based analyst, says the PPP’s friendly opposition’ politics has damaged the party in Punjab badly. “The PTI chief Imran Khan’s aggressive politics against the PML-N helped woo the PPP leader and voters. Even, the PPP has no role in ousting the Sharif from premiership. It was only the PTI which continuously ran a campaign [against him],” Wazir tells TNS.
However, Rumi thinks differently. “The PPP under the Bilawal is playing an aggressive role as opposition. Also Aitzaz Ahsan has emerged as a major voice in the Punjab against Sharifs. But the baggage of ‘reconciliation’ has affected the overall perceptions of the voters,” says Rumi.
After the 2013 polls and the emergence of the PTI as an effective political party at the national level and in Punjab, the PPP has lost its influence there and is restricted to rural Sindh only. And in recent months, a number of key leaders of the PPP in Punjab have also joined the PTI, wiping out the latter steadily in a province that constitutes almost half of the seats of the National Assembly.
The PPP leadership is working hard to change this dynamic in the upcoming polls and, thus, the PPP’s co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto have landed in Lahore on August 16 to stage a camp and do aggressive politics in Punjab, the party leaders say. The two leaders met party’s Punjab leadership and discuss the province’s changing political scenario. They have also discussed the election campaign for Faisal Mir, the party’s nominee for by-polls in the Lahore’s NA-120 constituency.
“The party is now in the election mode and the main focus would be Punjab for this purpose; the public contact campaign has already started,” says Qamar Zaman Kaira, PPP’s central leader.
However, analysts believe it is unlikely that the PPP will emerge as the single largest party for some time. “The route to power in Islamabad is via Punjab. Here the PTI and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid are in a hyperactive mode. If the PML-N cracks by early next year, the PTI and PML-Q will benefit more than the PPP,” says Rumi. “Sadly, the PPP has not much to offer to the aspirational urban middle and lower middle classes of the Punjab. The PTI has the edge in that direction. But PPP is likely to retain its hold over Sindh and it might make a few gains in Southern Punjab if there is an effective campaign under Bilawal and if PPP becomes a credible voice for Seriaki rights, it is likely to emerge as a key player in 2018.”
On the other hand, the PML-N is not considering the PPP as a serious challenge. “In the current scenario, the PML-N has gone back to ideological politics and gave alternative narratives: empowerment of Parliament, PM office, respect for ballot and permanent mechanism for conflict resolution among institutions,” says Jan Achakzai, a PML-N’s central leader. “On the other hand, the PPP has lost ideological streak, and it also has no governance-development centered narrative. The PPP will take a while to recover lost space to PML-N on the basis of conceptional democracy including the CoD.”
A section of analysts believe that Zardari’s arrival in Lahore is a part of helping the elder Sharif out of the crisis and a meeting between the two is also expected. There are speculations in Islamabad and Lahore that Sharif had contacted Zardari and sought help but the latter had only promised to consult his party leaders on the issue.
They also believe that the PPP central leadership has assessed the situations and expect that after Sharif, the next target would be Zardari trapping him in corruption cases. However, the PPP leaders reject such speculations and say that Sharif-Zardari meeting is not probable.
Meanwhile, an accountability court in Rawalpindi has expedited the proceeding in the last pending corruption reference against Zardari, in which he was accused of having acquires assets, both in Pakistan and abroad, illegally, according to an August 17 media report.
“The PPP is doing politics of muk muka (compromise/deal) with the PML-N and bringing the party into a bargaining position,” says Wazir. He says the PPP’s apparent aggressive tone against the PML-N is just to make the party workers in Punjab happy.