EXCLUSIVE: PPP’s Fortunes Shine In Punjab As More 'Electables' Expected To Join

EXCLUSIVE: PPP’s Fortunes Shine In Punjab As More 'Electables' Expected To Join
LAHORE: Amidst the political turmoil and myriad crises engulfing Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) appears to be priming itself in order to make a surprising comeback in the Punjab province, the country's most populous federating unit that holds the key to national power.

The surest sign of this ascendancy came yesterday on June 1 with at least 25 electables from South Punjab – former MPAs and MNAs of the now dysfunctional Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – formally joining PPP in an event arranged at Bilawal House in Lahore. Former president of Pakistan and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari was present at the occasion to solemnise this expansion of PPP Punjab.

Sources privy to this development informed The Friday Times (TFT) that a large number of electables – former MNAs and MPAs who now see no value in PTI’s ticket – are ready to join PPP from north, central and west Punjab as well. It is asserted that these electable politicians will also meet PPP supremo Asif Zardari soon at Bilawal House in Lahore. 

A high-ranking PPP politico who was part of yesterday's (June 1) meeting at Bilawal House confirmed to TFT that the former president was "convinced that the party will not go for seat adjustment" with Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and will compete in the next elections against their senior coalition partner of the current Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government. 

Bilawal to contest National Assembly seat from Rahim Yar Khan 

PPP insiders purported that it had been a longstanding demand of PPP workers or 'jiyalas' that to revive the party, the leadership needed to invest more time and energy in the Punjab, which holds the largest number of seats in the National Assembly and is likely to resemble a metaphorical (if not literal) battlefield in the upcoming general elections. 

“Finally, the leadership has paid heed to our demand, and it is a matter of great pride that PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will contest elections from Rahim Yar Khan. This is the ancestral district of PPP South Punjab president and former governor Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmud. Rahim Yar Khan is the perfect choice for the new fort of PPP in the province,” said Irfan Budh, a PPP stalwart from South Punjab. 

Budh maintained that it was "an excellent move" by president Zardari which would motivate the party's cadres. "The leadership gives importance to Punjab as well as Sindh, and now the perception of Punjab being abandoned by PPP leadership will recede and fade away. Previously, jiyalas felt that the party leadership doesn’t care about Punjab," Budh said, before proclaiming, "now things will change". 

PPP's Punjab strategy 

Political pundits who have long studied the PPP and its workings day that former president Zardari and incumbent foreign minister of Pakistan Bilawal have both realised that in order to revive the party in the largest province, they need to spend more time with the party's rank-and-file in Punjab. The party's decision to have Bilawal contest a National Assembly constituency from Rahim Yar Khan is a part of this realisation manifesting in political terms. 

Well-informed sources in PPP maintained that the "safe seat" from Rahim Yar Khan's Liaquatpur Tehsil constituency (NA-169 Rahim Yar Khan-I, previously NA-175) might be chosen for this purpose. It may be noted that Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmud was himself elected as an MNA from the Liaquatpur seat, and he had also helped Khwaja Ghulam Rasool Koreja win from this constituency in 2013. 

Insiders say that Rahim Yar Khan is "the safest district for PPP in Punjab" from where the Makhdoom family never loses any elections. "They also supported Jahangir Khan Tareen in his bid to get elected from a nearby constituency in the past, as Tareen is brother-in-law to Mahmud," a well-informed source said. 

PPP all set to regain lost ground 

Analysts familiar with the political pulse of Punjab told TFT that MNAs and MPAs who had left PPP for PTI before 2018 elections seem to be planning to rejoin the party of Bhutto. The PPP is also spreading its tentacles in all parts of Punjab, as some assert that the 25 from South Punjab who recently joined PPP is "just the first step". 

It may be recalled that PPP was almost entirely 'wiped out' from Punjab in the last two general elections, managing to secure only 7 provincial assembly seats in the 2018 general elections. 4 of these were from Rahim Yar Khan (Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Mumtaz Ali, Rais Nabeel Ahmed and Syed Usman Mehnood), one seat was from Chiniot (Syed Hassan Murtaza), one seat was from Multan (Syed Ali Haider Gillani) and one seat was reserved for women (Shazia Abid). 

It is pertinent to mention that PPP had managed to secure 93 Punjab Assembly seats in the 2008 general elections, followed by only 8 seats in the 2013 elections. This trajectory made people believe that PPP had no vote bank left in Punjab, but recent high profile inductions are beginning to convince many that former president Zardari is 'playing his cards' prudently and astutely.

PPP ‘ultimate beneficiary’ of PTI’s defections 

Political pundits believe that the prime beneficiary of the ongoing crackdown against PTI will be PPP, and electables will join this party instead of Jahanagir Tareen's new party which currently lacks the street power and grassroots support required to win elections. 

PMLN 'concerned' about PPP surge in Punjab 

A senior leader from PMLN told TFT that the party leadership was "deeply concerned and worried" about electables and Punjabi voters joining PPP in large numbers. "It seems that we may witness a neck and neck contest between PPP and PMLN in Punjab again. This might signal the revival of the '90s political era where we used to witness tough contests between the erstwhile arch rivals," the PMLN leader said. Both PPP and PMLN are coalition partners right now in the PDM government at the federal level. 

Some political leaders seem to have concerns over Zardari’s presence in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, while others were of the opinion that PMLN should also extend its reach into Sindh, in order to give PPP a tough time, or to make PPP reconsider its moves in Punjab. 

Some analysts, however, believe that PMLN may not be able to cause as much damage to PPP in Sindh, as PPP is already doing to PMLN in Punjab. 

PPP's Punjab leadership is aware that the party workers want to contest the next elections against their longtime rivals PMLN, but the party's senior leadership is so far silent over the matter, as all democratic forces are currently focused on the disintegration of the PTI and, more importantly, how to capitalise from it and restore normalcy and respectability to Pakistan's political culture.

PPP election manifesto to focus on Pakistan's economic revival 

Participants of the meeting at Bilawal House in Lahore confirmed to TFT on condition of strict anonymity that former president Asif Ali Zardari, in consultation with former premier Yousuf Raza Gillani, former governor Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmud, Nadeem Afzal Chan and other leaders, was convinced that the PPP's manifesto slogan or 'one point agenda' for the next general election has to be the revival of Pakistan's economy. 

“In this regard, president Zardari has instructed party leadership that revival of the national economy must be the main focus of the party manifesto for the upcoming elections. The people are inundated with rising inflation, and the country is on the brink of bankruptcy,” a senior PPP officebearer said. 

‘President Zardari wants elections in five months' time’

The senior PPP source also told TFT that president Zardari wanted elections in five months' time, which is why he had started gearing up and wooing electables in Punjab, Centre and Balochistan. 

According to the former president, PPP would be optimally prepared for general elections if they took place by October-November 2023. However, the incumbent National Assembly is set to complete its tenure in early August, and a new assembly has to be elected within sixty days thereafter. 

PMLN 'still hesitant' to go for elections 

Political insiders maintain that it is the PMLN which is not in favour of elections this year, because they are fearful of losing under the weight of the government's performance since April 2022. This view in the PMLN ranks believes that if they go into general elections without rectifying the economic situation, they will lose whatever political capital they have left.

PPP will benefit from this further erosion of the PMLN's hold in Punjab, because all of the federal government ministries which concern the common people are currently with the PMLN, be they finance, petroleum or power. 

The writer is a senior correspondent at The Friday Times with a focus on politics, economy and militancy. He also hosts the Hassan Naqvi Show on Naya Daur.