If Nawaz Sharif wins the 2018 elections, it will be because the three left-of-centre political parties in Pakistan decided to let emotion get the better of themselves and hand the PML-N victory. It may be early days to make predictions with any degree of certainty about elections that are still more than three years away, but there are still quite a few things that are becoming abundantly clear.
Firstly, it seems quite apparent that the PTI is effectively a five-year flash in the pan that will likely fizzle out by 2018. Voters in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) have too much pride to continue playing second fiddle to their counterparts in Punjab, who are way too obviously the PTI’s first love. And the party will continue to fail to make inroads with voters in Punjab so long as its leadership continues to arrogantly disrespect their choice.
The PTI leadership needs to accept the fact that Punjab actually likes the Sharif brothers and for good reason. Unless the PTI can demonstrate that it can offer them a better deal — by building a track record in K-P — it can kiss the notion of a PTI chief minister of Punjab goodbye. Interestingly, the one province that might still be open to the PTI’s overtures is Sindh, but the PTI has not shown that it cares enough to commit sufficient party resources there.
So if the PTI is not going to make bigger inroads in 2018, does that mean that Nawaz is assured victory? Not exactly. The prime minister can only lock in a re-election win if he shows himself capable of undertaking thestructural reforms necessary to solve the power crisis in Punjab. More than 18 months into his third term, Nawaz demonstrably lacks either the political courage or the executive ability to make those reforms happen. Voters in Punjab elected him to fix electricity. If he does not accomplish that by 2018, nothing else will matter to them.
This does not, however, mean that he will lose if Punjab still has rolling blackouts. The PML-N could still win by default as being the ‘least worst’ option. But the ruling party will likely go into the next election as a weakened incumbent. Unless, of course, the three left-leaning parties in Pakistan decide to get their act together.
Following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, there is still a gaping hole on the left of Pakistan’s political spectrum. Unfortunately, the PPP alone is not large enough to fill that gap by itself, but it would stand a much better chance of doing so if it absorbed the MQM and the ANP into its mix. All three parties have an incentive to agree to this merger, and to some extent, it may even be inevitable. But if they want it to have an impact on 2018, they need to act fast.
The MQM leadership could use the prospect of a merger with the PPP as a bargaining chip to get what the party originally started out for: getting an effective governance structure for Karachi and Hyderabad. The ANP, for its part, is a shadow of a party that should accept that K-P will never elect it again so long as it pledges loyalty to Asfandyar Wali Khan, a man viewed by many as having abandoned the province when it needed him the most. By shifting leadership from the Wali Khan family to the PPP, at least that orphaned left-leaning Pashtun vote bank has a chance of being consolidated into a national party. And of course, as the acquiring party, the PPP will gain access to a new vote bank in K-P and consolidate its hold on Sindh.
Ideologically, while the parties have many differences — particularly when it comes to governing Karachi — they are united in their recognition of the common threat of religious fanaticism. As for practical feasibility, the PPP is led by Asif Ali Zardari, the best political dealmaker in Pakistani political history.
It may sound implausible, but this political merger is more possible that one might think. It may also be the centre-left’s only realistic chance of beating the PML-N in the next election. The only other alternative is Qaim Ali Shah creating an impressive track record in Sindh for the PPP to campaign on in 2018. Which of these two options do you think is more likely?