PML-N’s Russian roulette

Spearhead Analysis – 19.02.2013

By Aima Khosa
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

PML-NHow is Russian roulette played? It is a dangerous game where the player places a single bullet in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against his head and pulls the trigger. It is a game of chance and largely a game of luck. One either gets away with it or they don’t.

This is precisely the game Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is playing – with the proverbial bullet in this case being the dissolution of the Punjab Assembly. The chief minister made valiant assurances to the prime minister that elections will be held in Punjab on the same day they will be held all over the country. However, upon returning to Lahore, the chief minister announced that he is not, in fact, dissolving the provincial assembly as per the wishes of the federal government.

Naturally, this puts the federal and the provincial government at an impasse. The federal government wants the dissolution of assemblies at the same time so that elections can be held on the same day all over the country. This is only possible if PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif cooperates, dissolves the provincial assembly in a day or two and agrees to a set election date.

Why are general elections on the same day the priority? The obvious answer is that if elections are held on different dates in different provinces, the announcement of the first polls would radically alter election results in the rest of the country. It is, in its most devious form, a means to rig the elections.

No one, in this situation, is accusing PML-N of pre-poll rigging – not this way, at least. PML-N wants elections just as badly as PPP for it can sense a victory on the other side. PML-N will be among the parties that seek to benefit most from the upcoming elections, and the sudden horde of politicians switching to PML-N is indicative of its probable success in the polls.

So why, then, would Shahbaz attempt to hold the elections hostage?

It might be because PML-N has realized that it may not be very happy with the interim prime minister. The stalemate in agreeing to a name for the coveted post led to a major loss for PML-N; the PML-N dominated Opposition lost its leverage when President Zardari made his move to establish the parliamentary committee that is likely to swing the decision of the interim prime minister in PPP’s favor.

Perhaps PML-N was always at a disadvantage in that sense; and perhaps at some levels, PML-N was aware of its limitations in managing to choose an interim premier of its choice. Zardari’s policy of reconciliation and dialogue worked largely in PPP’s favor when the time came to select an interim government; the coalition forces stand by PPP and Zardari further sought to isolate PML-N further by wooing the already disgruntled JUI-F.

So in this increasing atmosphere of isolation and quick loss of temporary advantage, Shahbaz Sharif is playing the only card that is left to him; holding the elections hostage to seek an interim chief minister of his party’s choice. Realistically speaking, this is the best option PML-N has in any case.

A PML-N-influenced provincial set up will largely favor the party in many, many ways. The provincial government under PML-N undertook multi-million rupee development projects for infrastructure, education, health etc. A lot of these projects are still in the works and will likely require many years for completion. In the meantime, the PML-N would prefer the pace of these projects remain undisturbed – something that is likely if, say, a PPP-dominated provincial set up takes office.

Over the last five years, PML-N has also established a preferred bureaucratic network with which it works best. The party would also prefer to leave this network unbroken and untouched during the interim tenure so that when/if PML-N is re-elected in its Punjabi stronghold, it does not have to start over afresh.

The biggest advantage that PML-N might get out of its preferred provincial interim government is its influence on the polls. A PML-N dominated provincial government would not just prevent anti-PML-N rigging in the polls but might actually seek to influence election results in its favor. It must not be forgotten that PML-N faces strong opposition from various quarters in its own constituency; Imran Khan’s popularity has not wavered despite many politicians quitting the party to join others. PML-Q also remains an old nemesis. PPP, as well, has reasonable influence in Punjab. Popular vote or not, PML-N will need influence over the polls to ensure the victory that everyone seems to be predicting for them.

So far, Shahbaz is just pulling the trigger, reminding the federal government of this last powerful card PML-N has. It is, now, Zardari’s move – and one cannot forget political genius.

In any case, however, the elections will happen. The security and law and order situation in the country was very well addressed in an article by Moeed Yusuf who reminded his readers that elections were held in Swat at the peak of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan-led insurgency in 2008. He further stressed that by-polls have been held all over the country in the last five years without any major incidents.

He then made a very strong argument refuting the conspiracy theory that the caretaker set-up will be extended and be handed over to technocrats, or that there will be a direct military take over. There is no constitutional, judicial or democratic support for either one of these scenarios.

The interim set-up is a wait-and-see game. However, an election is definitely visible down the road, especially because it benefits all political parties who have asserted democratic influence time and again over the last five years.