PML(N)’s South Punjab problem

  • South Punjab is where elections are won or lost

A recent visit to my home town of Mian Channu, highlighted the PML(N)’s current south Punjab problem. Located on the cusp of the Sahiwal-Khanewal border so not quite South Punjab, Mianchannu is proud that one of its sons, Ghulam Haider Wyne, became the PML’s Punjab’s Chief Minister. Yet today instead of being a PML(N stronghold, all the local politicos from here are clamouring for a place on the PTI political train.

South Punjab comprises 11 districts: Khanewal, Multan, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Lodhran, Vehari, Layyah, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh and DG Khan. These districts elect 46 Members of National Assembly seats and 92 Members of the Punjab Assembly. Unlike the PTI, which thanks to its strengths in other provinces and the Salt Range, has several paths to power for forming the government in Islamabad. For the PML(N), given its shrinking vote bank elsewhere, today its only path is winning an overwhelming majority in central Punjab’s 82 seats and South Punjab’s 46 seats.

Historically, except for PPP, all parties have only won in South Punjab with some support from the establishment. The PML(N) twice won decisively in 1997 and 2013 and marginally in 1990. At all these times it was supported by the establishment. The PML(Q) won in 2002 and 2008, again with substantial support from you-know-who.

The PML(N)’s South Punjab problem does not lie entirely with “establishment” but rather is mainly a result of the PML(N)’s own genesis and provenance. When the latest PML was created in 1985 by Zia Ul Haq and his Punjab Governor Gen Ghulam Jilani, there were two contenders for the post of Punjab Chief Minister, the “mohajir” Industrialist Nawaz Sharif and a “local” landowner Manzoor Wattoo. Gen Jillani was opposed to the “Punjab Chieftains” as in his opinion they would eventually betray their benefactor. Zia, a “mohajir” from East Punjab, also preferred the fellow “mohajir” Nawaz Sharif, whose Kashmiri father had migrated from Amritsar. Thus the crown fell on Nawaz’s head and the rest, as they say, is history.

Without a strong win in South Punjab (even assuming a strong showing in central Punjab), for the 2023 elections, the PML(N) is looking at a total haul of around 65 to 75 seats in the National Assembly, well short of the requisite 130 seats needed for a working majority. Thus with all its peccadillos, South Punjab at the present time might be out of reach. Unless it can refocus its efforts on winning here in 2023, the PML(N) may well have to spend a few more years in the political wilderness

To counter the PPP, in the 1980s Zia had already set about cultivating a new political elite in Punjab, Khawaja Safdar (Khawaja Asif’s father), a Kashmiri from Sialkot was made member of Majlis Shura, as was Ghulam Dastagir (Khurram Dastagir’s father), another Kashmiri friend of General Jilani from Gujranwala, while others included Rana Phool (Father of Rana Mohammed Iqbal, former Speaker Punjab Assembly) a  migrant from Ambala district settled in Okara, Chaudry Akhtar Vario a Gujjar from Gurdaspur district settled in Sialkot, and Mrs Nisar Fatima (mother of Ahsan Iqbal) from Narowal. Air Commodore Khaqan Abbasi (Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s father) although a local from Murree was a good friend of Zia and was also made minister. The children of these politicians now form the core inner circle of the PML(N). However none are from the established landlord families, particularly of Southern Punjab.

Surprisingly most the local Punjabi landlords selected for power by Zia are no longer in the PML(N), including Shah Mehmood Quresh,i whose father Sajjad Hussein Qureshi succeeded Jilani as Punjab governor, Yousuf Raza Gillani (a minister under Zia and member of Majlis Shura), Manzoor Wattoo (Punjab Assembly Speaker under Zia), Sardar Zulfikar Khosa, Chaudry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, son and nephew of Ch Zahoor Elahi, another great supporter of Zia. From the Salt Range even Chaudry Nisar Ali is also no longer in the PML(N).

During his years of exile from 2000-2007, almost all the Punjabi chieftains and locals abandoned Nawaz Sharif and aligned themselves with Gen Musharraf’s newly formed PML(Q), nowhere more so than South Punjab where in the 2002 elections the PML(N) won only 12 percent of the vote and no seats, as opposed to PML(Q) that won 35 percent of the vote and majority of the seats. In a large number of constituencies the PML(N) could not field a single candidate, and even in Mian Channu, it struggled to find a strong candidate as everyone had already jumped ship for the newly formed PML(Q) or the PPP.

Nawaz Sharif never forgot that insult─  he once told a bureaucrat “Saadi dosti vi pakki, te saadi dushamni vi pakki” (my friendship and enmity are both firm), and once re-elected Nawaz Sharif treated the Punjab Chieftains accordingly. Often, making them wait a long time prior to granting an appointment, including a very public falling out with Sardar Zulfikar Khosa from Dera Ghazi Khan. So once they had a whiff at power in the form of the PTI, other than a few such as Mohammed Khan Daha of Khanewal, most of the South Punjab Chieftains abandoned PML(N) i droves. In 2018 the PML(N) with a 27 percent share of the vote, won only 12 out of the 46 seats for the National Assembly, as opposed to the PTI’s 35 percent and 24 seats, with independents garnering 20 percent of the vote, and five seats. In 2018 PPP, now limited to four families, could only manage six percent of the vote. A far cry from the 51 percent it had garnered in 1988. Tehrik Labaik Pakistan, the rising star, won over 5 percent of the vote.

Politically rural South Punjab is odd and unpredictable, independent candidates and their clans are as, if not more important than political ideology. In 23 of 46 seats the number of votes cast for an independent exceeded that of the winning candidates’ margin. In Vehari PTI lost two seats to PML(N) due to Ayesha Nazir, an independent candidate, the PPP won three seats in Muzaffargarh from the PML(N) and PTI due to Jamshed Dasti and other independent mavericks, the PTI lost two seats in Rahim Yar Khan to the PPP and the PML(N) due to independents, and so forth.

Given that today none of the major political parties in Pakistan have any ideology, to win in South Punjab, not only must the candidate be strong and belong to the right clan, but he must also reach a compromise with other strong candidates in the constituency, to ensure that votes are not divided. In 2013 the PML(N) was able to pull off that feat as it was in government in Punjab, and was backed by the right quarters. This may well prove to be a bridge too far, in the 2023 elections for the PML(N). Particularly without any local administration’s support and with its leader Nawaz Sharif exiled in London, unable intervene in person.

Without a strong win in South Punjab (even assuming a strong showing in central Punjab), for the 2023 elections, the PML(N) is looking at a total haul of around 65 to 75 seats in the National Assembly, well short of the requisite 130 seats needed for a working majority. Thus with all its peccadillos, South Punjab at the present time might be out of reach. Unless it can refocus its efforts on winning here in 2023, the PML(N) may well have to spend a few more years in the political wilderness.

Abbas Hasan is an engineer and a cricket fan who works in the Middle East. He can be reached on Twitter at: @A3bbasHasan

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Abbas Hasan
The writer is an engineer and a cricket fan who works in the Middle East. He can be reached on Twitter at: @A3bbasHasan
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