What does the change in Punjab really entail?

What does the change in Punjab really entail?

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Punjab is not just the largest province of Pakistan. Its population is greater than the population of the other three provinces put together. It has the highest GDP and the bulk of the country’s armed forces – the most powerful institution of the nuclear state – also comes from the province. Any political change in the province reflects on the entire national political scene in Pakistan.     

Lately, with the installation of Chaudhry Pervez Elahi as the new Chief Minister (CM) of the province, politics in the country is bracing for a major shift. Although Elahi’s party - PML-Q – has only 10 members in the 371-member provincial assembly, he is the joint nominee of PML-Q and PTI which together command the majority in the assembly.  

Elahi is the most significant factor of the change which just occurred in Punjab. He is probably one of the most experienced politicians and political administrators in the country. He started his career from elections as a local government official and worked his way up through the provincial and national assemblies reaching the position of Deputy Prime Minister. He served as Speaker of the Punjab Assembly from 1997 to 2001 and later as one of the most powerful Chief Ministers of the province from 2002 to 2007. He is widely credited for development work during his term as Chief Minister. He has successfully worked with military governments and such diverse political parties as PML-N, PPP and PTI. His ability to carry his allies and the bureaucracy along is one of the strongest assets of the new government. 

Elahi knows PML-N, the arch rival of PTI and PML-Q inside out and has the ability to exploit its weaknesses to the optimum. The return of a PTI-led government to Punjab is not the worst news for PML-N-- but the return of Elahi as Chief Minister has the greatest potential to hurt PML-N. In fact, PML-N was quite happy with the PTI’s choice of an ineffective Chief Minister like Usman Buzdar during the past three and half years and would have welcomed a similar choice now, but with Elahi’s return, PML-N may face one of the toughest political challenges in the province. The bitterness in relations between PML-N and Elahi which peaked during the past few weeks may lead to consequences for the PML-N leadership, the bulk of which belongs to Punjab, as Chaudhry holds the reins of power in the province. 

Since Punjab is the decisive battleground which elects more than half of the legislators which in turn elect the Prime Minister, Pervez Elahi’s real agenda will be to implement development and public welfare programmes in the province in such a way that his party collects the dividend in the next election.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

A PTI-PMLQ government in Punjab can of course make the life of the PMLN-led federal government quite difficult and seriously constrain the ability of its leadership to operate in Punjab-- but the real significance of the change in Punjab lies in preparing the province for the next general election which has to be held in 14 months, if not earlier. Since Punjab is the decisive battleground which elects more than half of the legislators which in turn elect the Prime Minister, Pervez Elahi’s real agenda will be to implement development and public welfare programmes in the province in such a way that PTI-PMLQ collect the dividend in the next election. The Chaudhry government, like any other provincial government, is also expected to provide generous development grants to its party legislators to strengthen their re-election prospects while denying such facilities to the opposition legislators. 

Punjab is the only province which has not been able to hold its local government election during the past four years. The previous PTI provincial government had passed a local government law after much delay but it was removed before it could hold the election. The PML-N provincial government passed an altogether different LG law during its brief stint but with Chaudhry firmly in the saddle, the LG law will again be replaced by a PTI version. No provincial government welcomes LG elections during the year of a general election but if it has to hold LG elections under court orders, the Chaudhry government will try to exact maximum benefit by installing its favourite local governments in most of the districts before the general election.  

It remains to be seen whether Pervez Elahi will retain the independent entity of his PML-Q party or merge it with Imran Khan’s PTI in the months to come- in either case, he will be able to plug one of the most serious gaps in the PTI which was created with the departure of the experienced and deft political operator Jahangir Tarin.  

All, however, is not rosy and Imran Khan may have to work hard to heal the heartburn of his party stalwarts such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Fawad Chaudhry who have their own ambitions to become Chief Minister of Punjab – considered by some to be the most powerful post in the country.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.

Twitter: @ABMPildat

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