Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

How did PML-N end up here?

PTI has been handed two strong narratives to hammer its opponents with in the upcoming elections

Umair Zafar Malik May 26, 2022

In Pakistan, contrary to popular perception, the long-term popularity of what passes for political parties is not determined by the establishment. The establishment can certainly prop up a blue-eyed political outfit, leading up to and during a particular election, thereafter however, only legitimate grassroots popularity would keep the party alive in any meaningful way. Similarly, the establishment can, to a certain degree, restrict a political party during an election, but once a party has developed a loyal vote bank the establishment can do whatever it wants and the party will continue to have a politically relevant presence. In the short term, the establishment can influence the fortunes of the country’s political parties. Beyond an election cycle however, their fate rests with the masses, and is determined by how strong their campaign narratives are and by the political choices they make.

Numerous examples throughout our checkered political history can be quoted to substantiate this contention. Ziaul Haq during his draconian martial law of the 1980s used brute, desperate force of the state and the military to curtail the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). He was able to keep the PPP out of the notorious 1985 non-party elections, but as soon as his dictatorial rule ended, PPP swept to power in 1988. Since then, the party has remained a politically relevant player across three decades. Its recent decline in fortunes, over the last ten years or so, is purely because of the corruption, bad governance and nepotism that the party became synonymous with during its 2008-13 stint at the helm. All of Zia’s might could not diminish the PPP, in fact it only served to strengthen the party. However, five years of blatant cronyism, criminal mismanagement and shameless corruption have turned the once truly national outfit into a shadow of its former self; a regional party of interior Sindh.

The Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), on the contrary was conjured up by the then establishment to provide a political façade for Pervez Musharraf’s martial law. Led by the Chaudharies of Gujarat, the party routed its opponents in Punjab and Sindh and formed government in Islamabad after the 2002 elections. Despite the establishment’s best efforts however, the king’s party had run its course by 2007, and no amount of engineering would bring it back to power. Since then, despite the unconditional loyalty of its leadership to the establishment, the party has only managed to win about half a dozen seats in the National Assembly.

Until three months ago, in light of this history, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PMLN) prospects for the 2023 elections actually looked promising. Nawaz Sharif’s party had done its time outside of power, had remained largely intact and had developed two very coherent political narratives that were steadily gaining traction amongst the masses. Its only prospective competition, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), appeared destined to suffer from the typical ills that plague most incumbent regimes going into elections in a country like Pakistan; allegations of mismanagement, whispers of corruption scandals, and a pervasive general disillusionment that emanates from the disconnect between rosy electoral promises and rugged ground realities.

PML-N had effectively created a perception that the PTI regime was “selected”; insinuating the government had come to power after stealing the people’s mandate with the help of the establishment. Their second narrative, which was lent further credence by the PTI’s inability to control inflation and provide better governance, was that Imran Khan’s government was incompetent and incapable of steering Pakistan to prosperity. The PTI, on the other hand, seemed to be running out of narratives going into 2023. There was the Ehsaas programme, universal healthcare insurance, claims of superior Covid handling, and of building dams that would take several more years to start creating an impact. But PTI was no longer the alternative that had never been tried. Imran’s personal financial integrity aside, there was a perception of his close aides being linked to mega corruption scandals – Jehangir Tareen with the sugar scam and Aleem Khan with illegal land acquisition. On top of that, the ever-rising commodity prices and the burdens of incumbency would have made it extremely hard for the PTI to pose a challenge to PML-N in 2023.

It was against this backdrop that the erstwhile opposition parties decided to table the no confidence motion against the then government. Two months later, the tables have turned quite spectacularly. A rejuvenated PTI is leading unprecedented rallies across the country, while what used to be the government in waiting appears to cut a sorry figure with its indecision and obvious cluelessness.

PTI has been handed two strong narratives to hammer its opponents with in the upcoming elections. Firstly, the manner in which the PTI government was ousted reeked of a blatant disregard for democracy, constitutional supremacy and any sort of political morality. The brazen use of horse trading, the visuals emanating from the now infamous Sindh House, traditional politicians who had held each other responsible for the country’s numerous crises over the last several decades holding hands while smiling for the cameras, and the honourable courts taking up emergency petitions at ungodly hours added fuel to Imran’s conspiracy narrative. As if all of that wasn’t enough what followed was absolute pandemonium.

The country has since stumbled from one crisis to another. Punjab continues to flounder without a cabinet and with a chief minister who is in office only for as long as the inevitable disqualifications of turncoats can be delayed. The economy has been in a state of total melt down; the rupee has depreciated to unprecedented levels and the stock market sheds a few hundred points as a routine. The commodity prices have continued to skyrocket despite the government not slashing the fuel subsidy. Last week saw Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his key cabinet colleagues fly to London looking for answers. Not only did it make for terrible optics, it also blew the cover of Shehbaz’s image as a decisive leader and capable administrator. PTI now no longer looks incompetent in comparison to the alternative that has within four weeks practically supervised the country’s slow crash to within months of a possible default.

Going into the next general elections, whenever they happen, PTI will no longer be the incumbent, it will no longer need to explain its perceived incompetence, mis-governance and rising commodity prices. Its arch-rival, the PML-N, will likely be doing all that. PML-N has also surrendered its position with regards to the PTI government being a “selected” regime after using all sorts of ploys – horse trading, floor crossing, judicial intervention, managing support from allies like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) – to cobble together a government that seems incapable of making even the wrong decisions. The question must be asked, what was the urgency? Why did a government in waiting resort to such desperation, especially when they clearly did not have the slightest clue about what was in store for them?

Umair Zafar Malik

The author is a Pakistani cardiologist currently working in the US, who enjoys writing about politics, societal issues and healthcare. He can be reached at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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