Portent of things to come?
The defection from the ruling PML-N of six MNAs and two MPAs in the run up to the general elections is being considered a major setback to the party and perhaps a portent of things to come. All eight parliamentarians belong to south Punjab. They have announced that they are resigning from the Assemblies and will contest the elections either as independents or in alliance/seat adjustments with some other party. In a press conference to make this announcement, the group’s spokesman, MNA Khusro Bakhtiar revealed that they have set up a South Punjab Province Front (SPPF) for the purpose of carving out a province in south Punjab. The SPPF will be led by former caretaker prime minister Balakh Sher Mazari and MPA Nasrullah Dareshak. Bakhtiar justified this move by pointing to the high incidence of poverty and the neglect at the hands of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz’s government of the area. It is another matter that none of these worthies uttered a word on south Punjab over the last five years, either inside or outside the Assemblies. This kind of shift in allegiance is not unknown on the eve of general elections. The SPPF quitters have a long and inglorious track record of shifting loyalties. Most of them were elected in 2013 as independents, joining the PML-N later. Bakhtiar predicted more defections to follow as, he claimed, his group was in touch with some 20 PML-N parliamentarians on the issue. As it is, two more PML-N parliamentarians from Sheikhupura also defected on the same day. If this becomes a growing trend, serious consequences could follow. For one, the impending budget being passed before the PML-N government leaves office to make way for a caretaker government may prove difficult. It goes without saying that if the budget is not passed, the government would fall even before its tenure ends. In the absence so far of consensus between Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah on the caretaker setup, more uncertainty looms. All this could impact the election schedule. The game plan that is murkily revealing itself seems to revolve around exploiting any fissures or differences within the PML-N ranks and utilising the opportunistic tendencies of some PML-N parliamentarians to whittle away the strength of the party, make its victory in the elections difficult if not impossible, and pave the way for a hung parliament. Such an outcome could further lend itself to manipulation from behind the scenes to install a government amenable to ‘directions’ from powerful state institutions.
If this analysis is correct, party president Shahbaz Sharif’s instructions to the PML-N to refrain from commenting on the issue of defections is understandable on the touchstone of not turning the trickle of defections so far into an unstoppable flood. It seems the instruction followed Minister of State for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb’s castigation of these ‘turncoats’. It comes as no surprise that Information Secretary of the PTI, Fawad Chaudhry, gloated over the development as signalling the start of the disintegration of the PML-N. Whether that proves correct only time will tell, but these developments have already elicited a statement from Nawaz Sharif that ‘pre-poll rigging’ is in motion and without a level playing field for all parties, the results of the elections will prove unacceptable. The game plan can be discerned to have set the ball rolling with the change of government in Balochistan, its consequent impact on the Senate elections (where the PML-N was deprived of a generally anticipated majority) and now declaring open season on waverers in the PML-N ranks. If the game plan does, by some sleight of hand, does succeed, it is not difficult to imagine that what will follow is likely to be unstable, provide the scenario for further confrontation, and threaten the very foundations and premises on which a democratic order sits. Troubling thoughts indeed.