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PPPP and Punjab

President Zardari has moved into Bahria Town’s reportedly one billion rupee palace constructed specially for him on Friday. He was accompanied by his son and co-chairman of the party Bilawal Bhutto.

Prominent amongst those who came to receive him at Lahore airport was the colourful Malik Riaz, the man responsible for successfully launching the concept of gated and secure Bahria Towns in several Pakistani cities and responsible for several charitable deeds, including paying the ransom to the Somali pirates who had abducted Pakistani sailors.

Malik Riaz, reportedly well connected to power centres in this country for decades, catapulted into national prominence and headline news in recent years on three counts: (i) openly stating that he would use all his considerable resources to ensure that Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan lost the 2013 elections from his constituency; (ii) reports that he was responsible for gifting an extremely expensive car to Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza which was the cause of a serious rift between the Sharifs and Chaudhry Nisar – a rift which since then seems to have been repaired; and (iii) his accusations against the son of Chief Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar for accepting considerable monetary benefits as well as trips abroad on the understanding that Arsalaan Iftikhar would use his influence on his father to get verdicts favourable to Malik Riaz. Much has since been made public including the dramatic rise in the fortunes of the junior Iftikhar as well as the almost over powering influence on all centres of power in this country by Malik Riaz.

More recently, Dr Tahirul Qadri refused to begin talks with the Chaudhary Shujaat-led delegation on the grounds that the inclusion of Malik Riaz in the delegation would allow Qadri’s critics to accuse him of being “bought”. The entire nation watched Chaudhry Shujaat asking Malik Riaz if he wanted to address the media to which he first shook his head and then nodded. His words to the public were that he had agreed to become part of the delegation for reasons of national interest and he would leave if Qadri did not wish him to be a member of the delegation. He then left. Critics marvel at how, when a democratically elected government is in Islamabad, a Canadian national and a real estate tycoon, neither of whom is a peoples’ representative, were allowed to hog the airwaves by claiming they were doing it all in the national interest.

Malik Riaz being a part of the welcoming committee as President Zardari and his son alighted from the plane this Friday past reflects the fact that his influence especially with the ruling party remains. And he is expected to play a critical role in the forthcoming elections through making his almost limitless resources available to the PPPP. Financing elections is not illegal though the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has set a rather meager amount for the maximum that a candidate for a provincial assembly or national assembly seat can spend on campaigning. Enforcement of this rule, all are agreed, is unlikely. Be that as it may elections cost money all over the world and campaign financing by interest groups/individuals is legitimate.

In Pakistan, however, elections in rural areas have been won not on the basis of campaigning but on the basis of the baradari system (which would favour the PPPP in Sindh); there is general agreement that the PPPP would emerge as the largest single party in that province in spite of an appallingly poor performance in the economic arena as well as during the 2010 and 2011 floods with many of the affected still on the roadside.

The issue for the PPPP is Punjab which accounts for 183 of the total seats to the national assembly (53 percent of the total) – 148 general and 35 reserved. In 2008, the PPPP won only 60 seats from the Punjab, which forced it to form a coalition government. Surveys reveal that Punjab is unlikely to give PPP more than half of what the party won in 2008 or no more than 30, at the very best. The President has expressed his displeasure at the performance of the PPPP Punjab cadres by changing the Punjab governor twice after Salmaan Taseer’s assassination and the head of PPP Punjab wing has been changed a number of times as well. Mian Manzoor Wattoo, the latest head of the PPPP Punjab chapter has also not been able to deliver with the jiyalas openly opposed to his appointment.

The time to take on matters in Punjab in his own hands had obviously arrived and accounts for the President’s arrival in Bahria Town’s Bilawal House. Without doubt the President would find cash as well as promise of a federal ministry very useful in convincing electables, who would get elected no matter which party they opt to support, that their bread will be better buttered by the PPPP. And that’s where Malik Riaz can play a major role.

The Malik Riaz factor may therefore succeed in many changing loyalties at the last minute. And while few consider the fortunes of Nawaz Sharif as insignificant yet Pakistani political leadership rarely if ever spends its personal fortunes to win elections. The major source of funding for elections remains our tax dollars be they released by the government in the form of advertisements, which the ECP has banned, or by the establishment through secret and not so secret funds, or money by rich sponsors. This is not to say that the PML (N) or indeed the PTI does not have rich sponsors but perhaps no one as committed as Malik Riaz.

Money can and will be the sweetener however President Zardari has also played an issue-based card in the Punjab: support for the creation of a new province in the south of Punjab – a support that remains the main selling point of the party in its political objective to break the current hold of the PML (N) and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) on the province. There are indications that while the PML (N) has succeeded in convincing the Punjabis that the centre has treated Punjab unfairly in terms of electricity and gas shedding yet there is support in the poor South of Punjab for a Seraiki province though the extent and the geographical limits of the support are not clear.

Time, however, will tell if this dual election strategy with respect to Punjab elections namely money for the electables as well as the promise of carving Punjab into two will be enough to sweep the PPP back to power in the centre.

Anjum Ibrahim, "PPPP and Punjab," Business recorder. 2013-02-11.