The power of the PML-N

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Has­san Javid

IN 2018, par­ties seek­ing to chal­lenge the dom­i­nance of the PMLN in Pun­jab will con­front a dif­fi­cult and chal­leng­ing elec­toral land­scape. Bar­ring un­ex­pected events of the sort that have dis­lodged gov­ern­ments and de­railed democ­racy in the past, the PML-N will have com­pleted a decade of rule in Pun­jab by the time the next gen­eral elec­tions are held, man­ag­ing to ac­com­plish the un­prece­dented feat of hold­ing on to pro­vin­cial power for two suc­ces­sive terms.

While it would be pre­ma­ture and, in­deed, pre­sump­tu­ous to pre-judge what vot­ers will de­cide when they cast their bal­lots two years from now, there is some rea­son to be­lieve that the PML-N will find it­self in a rel­a­tively favourable posi- tion. For ex­am­ple, in the time it has ruled over Pun­jab, the party has made much of its in­vest­ment in the prov­ince's in­fra­struc­ture, ex­em­pli­fied by its show­cas­ing of projects like the Metro Bus and Or­ange Line train in La­hore, as well as a plethora of roads smaller cities and the coun­try­side. This model of 'de­vel­op­ment' rightly has its de­trac­tors, who em­pha­sise its ut­ter lack of fo­cus on eco­nomic re­dis­tri­bu­tion and so­cial wel­fare, as well as its en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact, but th­ese crit­i­cisms of­ten miss the point; roads and sim­i­lar in­fras­truc­tural projects are vis­ual metaphors for the party's 'per­for­mance', and may prove to have tremen­dous elec­toral value; af­ter all, the PML-N might say, the achieve­ments of its govern­ment are vis­i­ble for all to see, while those of its op­po­nents are con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence. This claim would be sup­ple­mented by the not en­tirely in­ac­cu­rate ar­gu­ment that hun- dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple across the prov­ince will have di­rectly ben­e­fit­ted from the PML-N's in­fras­truc­tural agenda. It would be cor­rect to point out that the money spent on th­ese ex­pen­sive projects could have been bet­ter utilised else­where, such as in the con­struc­tion of schools and hospi­tals, but this ap­proach seems to have gar­nered lit­tle pop­u­lar trac­tion thus far.

It's record on 'de­vel­op­ment' aside, the PML-N might also point to­wards an­other one of its ac­com­plish­ments, namely the es­tab­lish­ment of an in­sti­tu­tional or­der in Pun­jab. This is a claim that mer­its caveats and clar­i­fi­ca­tion. Un­like other parts of Pak­istan like Karachi, char­ac­terised by vi­o­lent con­tes­ta­tion be­tween ri­val par­ties, eth­nic groups, and crim­i­nal gangs, La­hore's pol­i­tics (and Pun­jab's) sug­gests the pres­ence of a cer­tain sta­bil­ity, with the of­ten frac­tious con­flict of the 1990s giv­ing way to a more rou­tinised cy­cle of largely non-vi­o­lent elec­toral com­pe­ti­tion. This is also con­trast with KPK, where the fall­out from mil­i­tancy and mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in FATA, cou­pled with the prov­ince's of­ten ram­bunc­tious elec­toral pol­i­tics, con­tin­ues to stymie the PTI's at­tempts to emerge as the dom­i­nant political player there. The PML-N has lit­tle to fear from its com­pe­ti­tion, as demon­strated by col­lapse of the PPP and the PML-Q in the prov­ince, as well as the in­abil­ity of the PTI to mount an ef­fec­tive chal­lenge to its power, and its cur­rently in­hab­its a political space char­ac­terised by the ab­sence of a cred­i­ble op­po­si­tion. How­ever, un­like in­te­rior Sindh where the PPP has his­tor­i­cally en­joyed a sim­i­lar political mo­nop­oly, the PML-N can ar­guably claim that it has presided over an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is more ef­fec­tive and re­spon­sive than the lack­adaisi­cal one the cur­rently reigns over Sindh.

The in­sti­tu­tional or­der the PML-N pre­sides over in Pun­jab is but­tressed by the party's de­lib­er­ate at­tempts to cen­tralise power in its own hands. Al­most a decade of rule at the pro­vin­cial level, cou­pled with con­trol over the fed­eral govern­ment since 2013, has placed the PML-N in a rel­a­tively unique po­si­tion whereby it can make use of its political mo­nop­oly to cast it­self as the sole, cred­i­ble pur­veyor of state pa­tron­age in Pun­jab. This has im­por­tant ef­fects on the bu­reau­cracy, whose mem­bers now face an in­cen­tive struc­ture within which trans­fers, post­ings, and priv­i­leges are tied to the main­te­nance of a good re­la­tion­ship with the rul­ing party, and on tra­di­tional con­stituency politi­cians, whose ca­pac­ity to win elec­tions and ac­quire rents through the dis­burse­ment of pa­tron­age de­pends on the ex­is­tence of link­ages with the PML-N. The lo­cal govern­ment struc­ture put in place by the PML-N has only deep­ened the party's power in the prov­ince by en­sur­ing that lo­cal coun­cil­lors, may­ors, and other elected of­fi­cials will re­main re­liant on the good­will of the pro­vin­cial govern­ment for dis­charg­ing their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The ben­e­fits of un­chal­lenged in­cum­bency - the co-op­tion of the bu­reau­cracy and political elites, the con­trol over lo­cal govern­ment, the op­po­si­tion of cred­i­ble political ad­ver­saries, and the abil­ity to push for­ward a nar­ra­tive of suc­cess­ful 'de­vel­op­ment' - are self-ev­i­dent, and raise in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about the fu­ture of democ­racy in Pun­jab and, in­deed, the rest of Pak­istan. Af­ter all, while the PML-N and its sup­port­ers might laud the prov­ince's sta­bil­ity and or­der, it is also clear that the cur­rent in­sti­tu­tional or­der is not par­tic­u­larly par­tic­i­pa­tory, in­clu­sive, or demo­cratic.

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