By Umair Javed –
Tracing the PPP’s path from Punjab electoral powerhouse to its down-but-not-out status in the province
From the 1970 general elections, to the dissolution of the assemblies on 13th January, 1977, the Pakistan People’s Party remained the pre-eminent electoral political party in the province of Punjab. Having secured 62 of the 82 National, and 118 of the 180 provincial assembly seats, the party’s arrival as a country-wide force was largely down to their success in the most populous and politically important province of West Pakistan. The party that finished second in Punjab – the Convention League – had a meager 7 seats at the National, and 15 seats at the Provincial level.
A large part of Bhutto’s success as a political leader, and in fact of the PPP as a country-wide political force was because of the relationship that both leader and party had with the largely poor and lower-middle class electorate in Punjab. Given the socio-economic changes witnessed in the province since independence, Bhutto’s left-wing populism, along with his curious brand of rhetorical nationalism, resonated deeply with a polity that had seen both increased landlessness, and unequal capitalistic growth under Ayub Khan’s military regime. A study done by Craig Baxter in the immediate aftermath of the 1970 general elections concluded that the party’s vote bank was quite clearly drawn from four different groups: rural agriculture laborers, small farmers and tenants, the urban working classes, and the urban intelligentsia.
In that temporal frame, the PPP was — beyond any doubt — the most popular party in Punjab, and its electoral performance in Pakistan’s first ever general election was a testament to that fact.
And yet even after mobilizing a strong, truly populist vote-bank, and after a 7-year stretch of total electoral dominance in the 70s, the party has failed to form the government in Punjab in 5 of the subsequent 6 elections. More than that, the party’s electoral performance in the province, both in terms of National and Provincial seats, and percentage of votes polled has remained average at best, with periods of stagnation punctuating an otherwise outright decline. In the 2008 election, the party secured only 45 of the 148 seats available in Punjab, with nearly half of them in the less populous southern Seraiki belt. In other parts, the party maintains pockets of support, some of it in the shape of ideological loyalty amongst the rural and urban poor, and the indigenous jaangli population, and some of it as the support-base of individual candidates.
In terms of percentage gained from the total votes cast for National Assembly seats in the province, the party started off with 44.1% in 1970, but then came down to 39.7% in 1988, 34.6% in 1990, 34.1% in 1993, 22.2% in 1997, 26.4% in 2002, and finally 27.2% in 2008.
For the next elections, scheduled to be held in 2013, the PPP has signaled that will enter into a formal seat-sharing arrangement with PML-Q – an agreement that will secure the electoral future of both parties in the densely populated and urbanized North and Central parts of the province.
The logical question to ask – after this cursory evaluation of sorts – is how did the decline come about? How did the PPP move from being the dominant, absolute-majority securing group, to a party that is, for all intents and purposes, forging electoral alliances to stay afloat.
There are several explanations for this, most of which can be traced back to the last years of Bhutto’s government, to the brand of politics introduced under General Zia, and to a variety of socio-economic changes taking place in Punjab – especially the rise of the middle-income and commercial classes in the North and Central districts.
For starters, by February 1976, Bhutto had lost out almost every last bit of support he had from members of the urban middle and upper classes. Larger businessmen had never supported Bhutto in the first place, as for them he was too pro-worker and too radical. Their suspicions were proven true when Bhutto ended up nationalizing banks, insurance companies, steel foundries, and chemical plants in his first wave of nationalization. What turned the smaller business elements against him was his third wave of nationalization that initiated the process of converting 2,176 agro-processing plants into government owned units. This unprecedented encroachment in the economy made the urban business and mercantilist classes hitch their cart to the anti-Bhutto Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) – a rag-tag group of parties and associations united only in their opposition to the PPP.
Following from there, the martial law, from its outset in 1977, ushered in a period of de-politicization and de-unionization. With the decline of horizontal working class-based associations in urban centres, crucial for the PPP’s electoral health in Punjab, the patronage networks that had been infant or rendered redundant during the 1970 elections, started to consolidate themselves again along economic and biradari lines. The petty bourgeoisie in central Punjab started to find an ally within the vestiges of the state, which under Zia’s regime was hell-bent on decimating the support base of the PPP.
The Zia era also saw the revival of local government systems as an act of instituting controlled democracy in the country. Very much in the vein of Ayub before him, and Musharraf in 2001, local government systems are designed to, as the name suggests, localize politics into issues of municipal importance. It is within these local government systems that patronage based relationships take root and flourish. More relevantly, it were the new urban middle-classes, the traders and businessmen, that stood to gain the most from the devolution program initiated by Zia-ul-Haq. By banning PPP workers and activists from contesting these elections, the floor was open for trader, merchants, businessmen and factory owners to enter the political fray, something that they were not accustomed to doing in the pre-Bhutto time period. The sheer growth in numbers of this middle class, estimated to be around 30% of the total urban population in Punjab, during this time period also ensured their consolidation as a political entity, and as a vote-bank that simply could not be ignored.
When seen together, the changes that took place in the period between 1977 and 1988, laid the foundations for PPP’s decline in the province. As populist politics gave way to patronage networks, and members of the urban commercial classes became important political actors, only those groups and individuals gained political success that had managed to cultivate these networks. By default or by design (mostly the latter), in the post-88 period, most of these groups have found themselves on the other side of the PPP, in either Muslim League factions (Q or N), or in other smaller right-wing groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami. The PPP, despite its recent efforts, has been gradually pushed away from major urban centers, and now largely secures its electoral victories in the rural parts of the province.
Given the fact that Punjab is one of the most rapidly urbanizing regions in South Asia, the PPP’s future in the province will be linked to its ability to gain footing in urban centers. While previously, the party could rely on the working class vote, the changes of the last three decades mentioned in the preceding paragraphs have created a situation where the working class vote itself is fragmented, and the urban middle class vote – the professional class, the traders, and the businessmen, determine electoral fortunes for candidates.
The task of reviving the party in the province has now been entrusted to Manzoor Wattoo, a recent entrant who’s otherwise been around on the political scene for the better part of 30 years, and Faryal Talpur, who has been tasked to find potential candidates for the province’s national and provincial assembly seats. As things stand, the party is predicted to do well in the southern region, largely due to the Seraiki province debate, behind which it’s leaders have thrown their weight, and in some rural parts of North and Central Punjab where a seat-sharing arrangement with the PML-Q will secure victories for some of its candidates. Leaving that though, prospects on the large number of seats in urban centers like Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, and Sialkot are considerably less bright.
How the party fares in the next election is a question that will soon be answered, but what is certain is that the PPP will need to reinvent itself and cultivate new support within the urban commercial and middle classes to secure its electoral future in Punjab.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org