Pakistan’s foreign minister, a central figure in the ruling party, hinted recently that his party may consider holding parliamentary elections earlier than scheduled in 2018. The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) has been under tremendous pressure from various state institutions, political parties and other sections of the public for the past two years. Particularly, over the past year, the government has virtually been brought to a standstill while the country’s foreign affairs seem to be functioning without any specific government intervention.
If the recent protests by Islamists in the country, which clearly targeted the ruling party and its electoral base, are any indication, it’s likely that the ruling party is preparing for early elections. In fact, holding an early general election offers the ruling party the best possible scenario if it wants to return to power with a colossal mandate that can restore its tainted image and credibility.
For the past four years, the ruling party’s attempts to flex its political muscles in terms of shaping Pakistan’s foreign and security policy agendas, which constitutionally fall under its jurisdiction, have been vehemently opposed by various other state institutions. In this regard, the military in Pakistan continues to win the historical struggle against the country’s elected civilian leaders. The current leadership of Pakistan’s two major institutions, the military establishment and the judiciary, have clearly shown that they are not going to offer the ruling party any helping hand when the latter is bent on shaping its electoral agenda by targeting them for their widely perceived role in sidelining the government in the first place.
Apparently, Nawaz Sharif, the head of the PML-N and the recently disqualified prime minister, is not interested in giving the military the space that the latter has claimed for the past five decades. Sharif has been outspoken about the military and the judiciary’s alleged nexus in undermining the elected government’s mandate and capacity to govern in the country. This has clearly put him in a confrontational mode with the country’s powerful military, which continues to control all key strategic affairs.
For the ruling party, the problem has been made worse by opposition political parties — particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — which have come out with an election agenda solely based on targeting the ruling party’s vote bank in Punjab. During the last two months, all major political organizations in the country have been working on making electoral alliances that are focused on isolating the ruling party’s constituency in Punjab. Mainly, political alliances are being chalked out among political and religious groups with the aim of targeting the PML-N’s support in Punjab. For instance, the recent sit-in in Islamabad was carried out by a religious group that has a major voter constituency in Punjab. While the agenda of the sit-in was nothing less than inviting a large-scale violence in the country, a majority of opposition parties supported or joined the sit-in, which shows that the government is not going to get any chance of fair play when a state-led opposition is bent upon undercutting its ability to govern.
To be sure, it’s tragic that decisions the government has taken over the past four years on behalf of the state have not only been discredited by other institutions of the state, but efforts have been made to resist the government’s ability to rule effectively by encouraging organized political and ideological resistance to its rule.
Pakistan’s democratic system is still tightly knitted in caste, ethnic, feudal, and other patronage structures. In Punjab, the ruling party controls a majority of candidates that can win elections due to their close connections with rural-based patronage structures. The country may appear to have a formal democratic setup, but in essence, Pakistan is still being ruled by these same ethnic, feudal, religious and institutional interests. Over the coming weeks and months, the challenge for Sharif’s party will lie in keeping the party together.
For the past four years, efforts to weaken the government’s capacity to rule were carefully planned and executed. Now, when the ruling party’s stands weakened politically, efforts are in place to encourage factionalism within the party to divide it internally. On the political front, this remains one of the biggest challenges for the ruling party heading into the next general election.
As of now, the next general election is scheduled to take place around June next year. However, if the systematic targeting of the ruling party’s political roots continued, the party may not be in the condition to contest elections with full force and vigor anyway. Going into parliamentary elections earlier than planned will help the ruling party keep its vote bank intact. Moreover, it will also isolate the opposition’s chances of weakening the party from within by encouraging factionalism in the party’s ranks. A fresh mandate will not only restore the PML-N’s credibility as a national party, but will also give it a much-needed mandate to counteract deepening political and institutional resistance.