PPP’s struggles in Punjab

Will Bhutto's party make a comeback in its former stronghold?

PPP’s struggles in Punjab
Like every Election Day, the Tahseen family went to a polling booth in the UC-65 constituency in Lahore on October 31, to vote for a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidate. Mr Tahseen, a businessman, and his wife have been voting for the PPP since 1988. They have also instilled voting as a ‘national responsibility’ in their three daughters.

“My parents have been committed PPP supporters for nearly three decades now,” says Nida Tahseen, the eldest daughter, who teaches journalism at FC College. “But they pull no punches when it comes to critiquing the party.”

The three daughters have grown up to be PPP supporters as well, but Nida fears her 23-year-old youngest sister, Ana, has been edging towards Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). “She didn’t tell us who she voted for! But I think it was PTI,” Nida said. “It’s probably because we’ve attended more PTI rallies than PPP’s!”

Mr Tahseen joined PPP as a party worker in 1988, but none of the daughters has ever been to a PPP gathering.

Despite Tahseen family’s votes, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidates Awais Bashir Khan and Mohsin Malik bagged UC-65, mirroring their party’s dominance in Punjab, especially in Lahore and Faisalabad. While PPP swept Sindh with 767 seats, the party only won 47 local council seats in Punjab, compared with PML-N’s 1,195. In many constituencies in Punjab, the PPP couldn’t even field candidates.
Bhutto got up and called Maulana Maudoodi a 'Pakistani Pope'

For the first time since 1970, former government officer Aslam Chaudhary, 63, didn’t vote for the People’s Party. When he went to the polling station, there was no PPP candidate he could vote for. “I voted for PTI as the lesser evil,” Chaudhary said. He believes that PTI’s rise has been one of the factors responsible for PPP’s decreasing votes in Punjab.

“The PPP has been devoid of a charismatic leader, especially after Benazir’s death,” Chaudhary says. “Imran Khan has filled that void for many traditional PPP supporters.”

Chaudhary believes Khan’s aggressive politics have also helped woo PPP voters.

“PPP’s role as a ‘friendly opposition’ has actually alienated the party’s voters. I remember back in 1970, during a rally here in Ichhra, Bhutto got up and called Maulana Maudoodi a ‘Pakistani Pope’ and addressed other rival leaders as ‘Aalu Khan’ and ‘Double Barrel Khan’. The PPP just doesn’t have that in-your-face aggression anymore. This is one of the reasons why the voters don’t have confidence in the current batch of leaders. We miss Bhutto.”

PPP workers in Punjab also seem to have lost confidence in the provincial leadership.

“Making Manzoor Wattoo the Punjab president was a catastrophic decision,” says Tariq Khattak, the Information Secretary of PPP Punjab’s Youth Wing. “Workers want a leader who is from among them and reaches the top democratically. We definitely don’t want a Zia loyalist. The PPP workers who fought against Zia will never accept him as their leader.”
"We will rebound before 2018"

He says there has been a massive leadership crisis in the party since Benazir Bhutto’s death. “No one had the capability to rise from the grassroots to the senior executive leadership of the PPP,” he says. “The local workers were expecting returns when the PPP finally came to power in 2008. But they were completely ignored.”

Khattak says party leaders have been selling government jobs, and haven’t paid any heed to merit.

“When you ignore the workers, why will they support you during difficult times? When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would be in a meeting with workers, even ministers wouldn’t dare interrupt him,” he says. Benazir Bhutto used to call workers to the Prime Minister’s House. She used to keep in touch with them via emails. Bhutto used to ask his workers to inaugurate large projects. But now, workers are being seen as security risks.”

Khattak believes the token presence of PPP in Lahore’s Bilawal House hasn’t helped.

“The Bilawal House has been built like a fortress 35 kilometers away from Lahore, rather than in the city,” he says. “Until the PPP leaders start connecting with workers, the party’s revival is not possible.”

Former Information Minister and veteran PPP leader Qamaz Zaman Kaira does not believe there’s a Punjab-centric leadership crisis.

“The leadership isn’t divided. It is centralized. Bilawal is the leader for all of Pakistan. In Punjab, it is more a case of addressing policy and administrative issues than any other matter,” he says.

Kaira cited the local council election results in Sindh, which he said showed the PPP dominated the province “despite the biases and efforts of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, federal institutions and the media”.

Although the party did not perform well in Punjab, he says it still has a presence all over Pakistan. “The PPP is everywhere. Our voters are upset and we’ve had other issues, but PPP still gets votes in Okara and Gujrat. We still have presence in Sahiwal.”

Asad Sayeed, a political analyst, believes that PPP needs to move leftwards much more explicitly. “This will mean taking up issues of the working class, the minorities and women. The PML-N and PTI are unlikely to take up the concerns of these communities,” he says. “Even if the PPP does this, Punjab’s present socio-economic conditions are such that they will not win. But this can become the basis of a revival and help break the right-wing straitjacket that Punjab’s politics have been reduced to.”

A political party that is not right of center does not have a lot of room to mobilize in Punjab, he says. “That is why the revival of the PPP in Punjab – and by the same token, any other form of organized resistance to the right-wing trend strengthening in the province – is not on the cards in the foreseeable future.”

Kaira believes ‘revival’ is too strong a word. “It’s not a case of revival. We’re going through a bad patch in Punjab. We have to understand what Pakistan’s challenges are, what PPP’s challenges are and then work on both in synchrony. We should formulate policies that are popular among the masses, but also address the challenges of regional and Pakistani politics. We are working on that.”

That being said, the veteran PPP leader says his party did much better in Punjab than the PML-N did in Sindh.

Can the party hope for a better performance in 2018?

“We will rebound much before 2018,” Kaira believes. “We have faced bigger challenges. This is also a tough challenge, but we’ll face it and overcome it.”