Will the PML-N survive?

Will the PML-N survive?

ISLAMABAD: Political pundits have painted a doomsday scenario for the PML-N. With their zeal to demonstrate their mastery in sycophancy, political commentators who worship the rising sun have even started calling the Kaptaan the PM-in-waiting. But is it that easy?

If the opinion of laypersons is anything to go by, it is difficult to pen the obituary of the PML-N. Let’s assess the arguments of those who claim to be adroit at extrapolating political trends and are determined to prove that the days of the Shahbaz-led party are over.

Pragmatists believe that no party can win the elections if it doesn’t enjoy the blessing of the powers that be. If history is anything to go by, this argument comes across as a fallacy. Anyone with sound historical knowledge and a political consciousness can easily debunk this theory. Pakistanis have never voted for pro-establishment parties. The voting trend has always been against parties that have the blessings of the powerful quarters of the state.

The general elections of 1970, which are considered to be the fairest polls in the history of Pakistan, witnessed the triumph of secular, nationalist and socialist parties. The Awami League, PPP and National Awami Party emerged as the largest parties in parliament. None of these parties was close to the powers that be. In fact, the religious parties, which were believed to be close to the country’s power brokers, had an insignificant presence in parliament.

When democracy was restored in Pakistan in the late 1980s, the power brokers cobbled together various religious and political parties to form an electoral alliance to prevent the PPP from attaining a majority. Even then, Bhutto’s party emerged as the largest political entity in parliament – albeit with a razor-thin majority. So, all machinations failed and no amount of patronage could translate gerrymandering into an electoral victory for the IJI.

It is true that Nawaz enjoyed state blessings during his first tenure, which might have helped him grab some seats. However, it was the development projects introduced in Lahore when Nawaz was chief minister that brought him in the spotlight. During the government of Mohammad Khan Junejo, the urban areas of Sindh – especially Karachi – were plagued by ethnic riots while robbers had made the lives of millions of people difficult in rural areas. Meanwhile, Punjab enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. It was during these times that Nawaz carved out a niche for himself in a province where the PPP used to enjoy the unflinching loyalty of its workers.

The rumours about Zardari’s corrupt activities had started doing the rounds during Benazir’s first government. Between 1993 and 1996, these were no longer just rumours. This situation strengthened Nawaz’s political position. His mantra of development projects worked and he was once again voted into power in 1997.

It may be argued that Nawaz enjoyed the blessings of the powers that be that helped bring him back to power. But we must remember that the industrialist-turned-politician had quarreled with these quarters during his first tenure and couldn’t retain his government despite being reinstated by the Supreme Court. It was the corruption and gross incompetence of the PPP government that helped Nawaz win the 1997 polls.

After 1999, the people of Pakistan once again rejected anti-democratic parties. First, Musharraf’s referendum turned out to be a political joke and even a slim majority could not be managed for the PML-Q government in the 2002 elections. So, perhaps such patronage isn’t always a key to power. Those who believe that the PTI is being favoured – and is, therefore, likely to sweep the polls – should revise their political opinion in light of these historical accounts.

The second argument suggests that the PML-N is likely to lose due to incumbency fatigue. The question is: why shouldn’t this incumbency formula be applied to the PTI’s position in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where voters have chucked out party after party in the polls since 2002?

Why is Sindh immune to the application of this formula? What we need to understand is that Sindh doesn’t have any strong alternative while in KP the PTI has performed much better than the ANP.

Similarly, the PML-N doesn’t face any potent challenger in Punjab. The party has cleverly implemented various mega projects that leave a deep impression on the public imagination. The party’s laptop policy also succeeded. The party failed to deliver on social development projects between 2008 and 2013. But thanks to Imran lambasting Shahbaz Sharif for the metro bus project, the maverick chief minister was prompted to work on various projects with stunning alacrity after 2013.

The younger Sharif hasn’t established a prosperous utopia. But his decision to establish more than 15 universities and Daanish schools; upgrade hospitals, inaugurate forensic labs, and improve health facilities appears to be far stronger in Punjab than the rhetoric of change that the PTI espouses in its mass rallies.

The Kaptaan tends to make tall claims about the performance of the police, health, education and accountability departments in KP. But the dismal performance of government schools during the recent matric examinations in Peshawar, the large number of patients from KP visiting hospitals in Rawalpindi and Lahore, and the sacking of the chief of KP’s accountability body shows how hollow these claims really are.

Let’s not forget that a student from a Daanish school clinched the first position in the matric examinations. Punjab’s forensic lab is also serving other parts of the country, including KP. The orange and metro lines as well as the infrastructure of roads, bridges and underpasses don’t prompt us to ask at what cost they have been built. Instead, people compare these developments with those that have been carried out in other provinces.

In Pakistan, we have a competition between the ‘worse’ and the ‘worst’. Corruption has been so embedded in our society since the time of General Zia that people are no longer bothered about it. They tend to believe that everyone embezzles funds. Now, they differentiate between those who embezzle between 90 percent and 95 percent of funds, spending either very little on public projects or nothing at all, and those who spend between 40 percent and 50 percent of funds on public projects and pocket the remainder. Many have placed the PPP and some other parties in the former category and the PML-N in the latter.

Many people don’t consider Imran Khan to be financially corrupt. But they are sceptical of his tedious acolytes. His political somersaults as well as his decision to include feudals, oligarchs and electables in the PTI and invoke contentious religious issues haven’t gone down well with many elements, including many PTI supporters.

Those who believe that the PML-N is likely to face a drubbing because it finds itself in hot waters should remember that we have many examples – from the 1970s to current times – when politicians have won polls despite being behind bars. So, the imprisonment of Nawaz and Maryam could turn out to be a major political advantage for their party.

The predictions regarding the 1970 proved to be incorrect. Will the prognostications of political pundits fail again?