Pakistan’s Ruling PMLN Party Is on the Defensive, but Don’t Count It Out

On Feb. 21, Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from leading the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PMLN, party. Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, another senior PMLN leader, is expected to replace him as party president.

The move marked Sharif’s second disqualification in seven months. Last July, the same court disqualified him from office, obliging him to resign as prime minister.

These developments represent just the latest blows for the PMLN, which has led the government after winning a landslide election in 2013—but has seemingly been on the defensive ever since then.

In 2014, the political opposition, led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, staged an extended anti-government campaign that revolved around allegations of PMLN electoral fraud the previous year.

Additionally, since 2016, Sharif and his children have been dogged by corruption allegations related to the Panama Papers. These allegations, tied to offshore assets, led to Sharif’s ouster last summer and to his disqualification as PMLN president last month. The graft investigations continue, with Sharif, his family and other senior party leaders facing possible convictions in the coming months.

The government suffered another blow last November, when it proved unable or unwilling to end a sit-in led by a small group of hard-line religious protesters in the heart of Islamabad, snarling traffic for two weeks. In the end, after a botched attempt to break up the sit-in, the government capitulated to the protesters’ demands. These included the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister, who had made a change to an oath uttered by newly elected parliamentarians that the protesters claimed undermined the status of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Pakistanis accused their government of surrendering to hard-liners.

Furthermore, over the past few years, the always-lurking Pakistani military—which has long sparred with Nawaz Sharif, both during his most recent term as prime minister and when he was premier in the 1990s—has asserted its power behind the scenes and constrained the government’s ability to shape policy.

And yet, despite these repeated blows to its image and clout, the PMLN is in an improbably strong position to win re-election in national polls scheduled for this summer.

Four reasons explain the PMLN’s continued strength. First, as one of Pakistan’s most well-established parties, it still boasts the resources and capacity to tap into a deeply entrenched patronage system that has delivered votes across the nation for decades. The other long-established party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is presently too weak to pose a challenge to the PMLN. Second, the political opposition—comprised mainly of the PTI and PPP—is divided and uninterested in forming an alliance to challenge the PMLN. Third, while corruption scandals have reduced its popularity, the PMLN has presided over several policy initiatives that enjoy widespread support. These include successful efforts to ease an energy crisis that the PMLN was elected with a mandate to overcome, as well as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—a $62 billion megaproject with the potential to bring more infrastructure, energy security, employment and overall economic growth to Pakistan.

Finally, the PMLN’s many crises have seemingly galvanized the party instead of dragging it down. In recent weeks, the PMLN has staged energized, well-attended campaign rallies. This includes one in February that drew thousands in Peshawar—the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, where the PTI runs the government. Since Sharif’s ouster as premier in July, the PMLN has embraced a narrative of victimhood and inveighed against the judiciary, accusing it of using selective justice to weaken the party.

This new strategy has paid dividends. In recent weeks, the PMLN has won a series of by-elections. And on March 2, it gained 15 seats in Senate elections, giving it control over both houses of Parliament.

This isn’t to say a PMLN national election victory is a foregone conclusion. The party’s legal woes will persist, and convictions of its top leaders would slow its recent momentum. Additionally, its strongest challenger, the PTI, is no slouch. For several years, it has electrified many Pakistanis with a relentlessly strident anti-corruption message, and the PMLN’s legal struggles both strengthen and vindicate this message. The PTI’s support base mainly comprises young, middle-class urbanites—a critical constituency in a nation that has a median age of 23, boasts a growing middle class and is rapidly urbanizing. Most of these supporters are in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

The PTI, however, is highly vulnerable. Several top PTI leaders have quit due to disagreements over party strategy, and another has been disqualified from Parliament for failing to disclose offshore assets. These developments undercut the party’s self-professed image as clean and disciplined. More importantly, the PTI has struggled to build a nationwide support base, particularly in rural areas. Its bastions are in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where it runs the government, and in urban Punjab, where the PMLN also enjoys its stronghold. Instead of focusing on grassroots efforts to scale up its presence in other regions, the PTI has stubbornly remained a virtual one-issue party fixated on anti-corruption activism.

For the PTI to stand a chance, it will need to not only expand its geographic reach, but also broaden its message. A survey conducted last year in the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore—a critical electoral battleground, given that both the PTI and the PMLN have strongholds there—finds that economic issues, not corruption, resonate the most with voters. The PMLN has presided over robust macroeconomic growth, though in recent months the economy has become increasingly fragile amid a ballooning fiscal deficit and falling foreign reserves. This year, Pakistan’s benchmark stock index, known as the Karachi Stock Exchange 100 or KSE-100, has fallen nearly 20 percent from last year. In January, the credit ratings agency Fitch downgraded Pakistan’s currency issuer default rating from stable to negative. Some economists predict a worsening balance of payments crisis will necessitate a bailout later this year.

A sputtering economy gives the PTI an opportunity to expose a longstanding PMLN strength as a growing vulnerability. And yet given everything else that the PMLN has going for it—national reach, easy access to a strong patronage system, popular policy achievements and most recently a galvanized party base—a shift in the PTI’s campaign strategy, even if coupled with several convictions of PMLN senior leaders, may not be enough to catapult it to victory.

To be sure, elections are still several months away, so definitive predictions are premature. Still, even at this early moment in time, it’s safe to say that Pakistan’s ruling party, despite being cut down to size and tainted by corruption charges, stands a strong chance of re-election.

This piece was originally published with World Politics Review.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.