The sidelining of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) after the May 9 riots has revived traditional political rivalries, with a widening rift between erstwhile allies PMLN and PPP the clearest indication of the upcoming electoral campaign. The PPP, especially, has made no secret of its belief that Nawaz Sharif’s comeback is being facilitated by the military establishment, which it accuses of pushing the party out of Punjab in 2013. In response, PMLN Senator Irfan Siddiqui has sought to correct the “historical error” by maintaining the PPP was actually eradicated in Punjab in 1985, not 2013. To bolster his claims, the PMLN leader has pointed to PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari being the president in 2013 and having significant pre-election dominance, with a caretaker setup dominated by party loyalists. Then-Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, he alleged, had worked closely with both the late Benazir Bhutto and Zardari, adding this was rewarded with a three-year extension to his tenure.
Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who the party says is poised to become the next prime minister, has vociferously communicated the PPP’s allegations. Supporting him, PPP stalwarts in Punjab with a bone to pick with the PMLN have started claiming the people of Punjab would not support a “coward.” For students of history, this is nothing new; Pakistan’s political discourse has often revolved around the PPP-PMLN rivalry and the latest clash reflects its return now that mutual-enemy Khan is in the background.
The core question: who will Punjab, with 141 of the country’s 272 directly-elected seats in the National Assembly, opt for in the next elections? It is undeniable that Khan, despite his multiple troubles, remains a popular leader, and could prove a challenge to both the PMLN and PPP. At the same time, the province has repeatedly proved a political stronghold for Nawaz, and it remains unclear whether his four-year self-imposed exile has effectively brought that to an end. What may emerge if Nawaz is unable to recover his supporters is a new phase of political power-sharing, where no single party enjoys a commanding majority, and all unite—despite their rancor—for a “national” government.