It is often mentioned that the PPP rode into power on the coattails of Benazir Bhutto’s untimely demise. I find this to be rather silly; would the PPP not have won had Benazir been alive? Of-course they would have.
The last election was predicated on the people’s desire to return to civilian governance and the PPP emerged as the face of democracy, an image it has cultivated over time.
The PMLN simply could not compete with the PPP on this issue. True, the absence of the Sharif family and the defections to Q-league substantially deflated PMLN’s chances, but then it must be remembered that Benazir too had spent much of her time outside the country and PPP leadership was confined to the shadows during Musharraf’s imperial rule.
The PMLN struggled to completely legitimize itself as a political party dedicated to democracy and people still remembered the floundering performance of the Nawaz Shariff government, especially in its last year.
The other failure in 2008 was the PMLN’s inability to connect with the populace of provinces not named Punjab. The party’s strategy of focusing on Punjab and relying on coalition partners has resulted in a disconnect with the people of the ‘minor’ provinces who view PMLN with more than a little skepticism. This skepticism is at times justified as the PMLN has alarmingly shown an inability to understand the problems facing these areas.
In the past five years the PMLN has largely redeemed itself regarding its democratic credentials. Now, it is possible that the PMLN’s actions were determined by other factors, insufficient support from the establishment and international actors and the party’s tense relationship with the military hierarchy. Be that as it may, it is important to credit the PMLN for avoiding conspiratorial maneuverings and supporting the democratic system, even when it would have been far more convenient to throw the PPP under the bus.
However, where the PMLN has failed is in its ability to portray itself as a national party that will look after the interests of all Pakistanis. The campaigning thus far has reinforced the belief that ultimately the PMLN only cares about Punjab. The party has failed to reach out to the rest of the country even as it sits in poll position to form the next government, which is extremely dangerous considering the perilous, fragmented nature of the Pakistani state.
Take for example PMLN’s policy towards Karachi. The PMLN is entirely incapable of understanding the city and its views appear to have been shaped largely by the manner in which many native Lahoris perceive Karachi: a supremely and hellishly violent, cut-throat, Muhajir city with a port. The complexity of Karachi’s demographics, the nature of its politics and the virtues of its white-collar and entrepreneurial populace get no traction. Similarly, the party has a very basic understanding of the causes of violence in Karachi, ask a party member in private about the situation and they will tell you that there is only one problem: the MQM. Now I don’t want to absolve the MQM, they are a major part of the problem and people are increasingly tired of their antics, but in no way is the MQM the only cause of the violence in the city. The PMLN has been entirely unable to grasp the evolving nature of the city’s demographics and politics, which in turn feed the violence.
At the time of announcing the alliance with Pir Pagara’s PMLF, Nawaz Sharif spoke about how he would restore law and order in Karachi and bring development to Sindh. He took a potshot at the MQM by saying that he would never permit the division of Sindh and culminated his speech by berating the local government system.
Never mind the irony of his words on law and order and development work in Sindh in the presence of the Pirs of Pagaros who have done absolutely nothing for their own constituents, while their kin continue to be implicated in criminal activities and land grabbing; Nawaz is in it to win and such a coalition is a necessary evil. It is his unnecessary statement against the local government system that is troubling. The people of Karachi and Hyderabad are generally in favor of LG and it makes little sense to alienate such a big chunk of the urban population. The PMLN doesn’t seem to care because it has no support in these two cities and it is preoccupied with the idea of winning.
However, winning and leading are two different things. The PMLN is so preoccupied with the idea of winning the election that it is not paying any attention to how it will govern the country once the elections are over. PML (N) has emerged as the frontrunner to lead the country albeit with the aid of coalition partners in a sharply divided parliament. The party’s performance in power will undoubtedly be shaped by the nature of its coalition and the influence of its partners, but one hopes that the party’s core leadership has enough political nous to define the trajectory of the government and formulate important policy decisions. I am more concerned about the PMLN’s ability to sell these policies to the rest of the country.
Karachi and Hyderabad represent over a third of the country’s urban population, they are home to white-collar workers, traders and entrepreneurs. This is a profile shared by many PMLN supporters in Punjab, and PMLN could initiate economic policies that will make it easier to do business which should find ready support in these cities. The PMLN leadership’s ill advised, partisan views and lack of understanding of the wider country, on the other hand could raise great suspicion and ultimately derail these policies.
The PMLN needs to realize, and realize fast, that if it is to succeed in government it will need the support of even those people who didn’t vote for the party, so it’s perhaps not a wise decision to irreconcilably alienate everyone who doesn’t support them. For a start, it can reach out to its natural allies: trade bodies, market associations, chambers of commerce, traders and business leaders. The party should stop taking such hard-line views on parties such as the MQM and realize that these parties do have a mandate and it is important to work with them. Lastly and most importantly, it needs to sell its vision for the country and convince all Pakistanis that the PMLN doesn’t just represent Punjab but all of Pakistan.