PML-N struggling to beat impression it’s ‘afraid of snap polls’

There appears to be an impression in political circles that the PML-N is ‘running away’ from elections in Punjab, something that seems to stem from the party’s insistence that it wants to save the Punjab Assembly ‘at any cost’.

However, the party says it is taking the decision in the interests of the country and not on the whims of an individual or a party, as it doesn’t want to appear to be giving in to Imran Khan’s demands.

The Sharifs have reportedly been advised by well-wishers within the party to change their narrative of ‘saving Punjab Assembly at any cost’ and adopt a more confident tone that shows they are not afraid of contesting polls in case Punjab Chief Minis­ter Ch­a­u­dhry Parvez Elahi dissolves the assembly on the request of Pakis­tan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan.

These conversations within the party come in the wake of PTI chairman and his party members claiming that the PDM parties, especially the PML-N, are afraid to contest even a by-poll because of the fear of a ‘loss’ as their popularity has dipped immensely since April.

A PML-N insider told Dawn on Wednesday that some close aides of the Sharif family have asked it to shun the ‘apologetic’ narrative, which the insider said implied that the party was running away from elections in the province.

“This makes it sound like we are seconding the narrative of Imran Khan that the PML-N is afraid of going to polls because of his supposedly rising popularity. We are in government in the Centre, not in Punjab. Why should we oppose the dissolution of the PA? Rather we should dare Imran to dissolve the assembly after which we will form a government here — this should be our narrative,” the insider quoted as having conveyed it to the Sharif family.

However, PML-N Punjab Information Secretary Azma Bokhari told Dawn that the reasons the party wanted to save the assemblies were constitutional, economic and law and order.

“The country cannot be run on the wishes of Imran Khan. Elections are held after consensus among all political parties and not on the desire of one person. Nowhere in the world can one party force others to call elections,” she maintained.

The MPA said the Constitution enunciated that the assemblies should complete their tenure.

“It is also not possible that elections are held in various assemblies separately. Besides, the ECP has also announced local body polls in Punjab in April.”

Ms Bokhari further said Pakistan’s economic situation, the post-flood situation, TTP’s end of the ceasefire with the government were the other pressing issues that did not make the environment conducive for elections.

It is pertinent to mention that the election commission sacked its spokesperson Haroon Shinwari for issuing a statement “without directions from the higher authorities” regarding the holding of elections in 60 days in case the Punjab and KP assemblies were dissolved. Subsequently, the commission announced holding of local body polls in Punjab in April.

Observers see this as an anticipatory move in the wake of the PTI’s possible dissolution of KP and Punjab assemblies, commenting that the election body could make an excuse that it would not be possible for it to conduct two elections — local bodies and Punjab — simultaneously.

On the other hand, PML-N senior leader Pervaiz Rashid dispelled the impression that the party was running away from polls.

“We are very much ready to contest and defeat the PTI in Punjab, but don’t want billions of rupees wasted twice. If Punjab and KP go to polls in March then after six months, elections for the national, Balochistan and Sindh assemblies will be held, which means billions of rupees will be spent twice for no reason. Every penny is precious and to be spent on the rehabilitation of flood-affected families, as we prefer the country’s economic situation over party politics.”

The former senator and close aide of Nawaz Sharif further said Mr Khan’s popularity was just a myth.

“People have seen his popularity graph during the long march, which reached Rawalpindi from Lahore in a month. He is not interested in dissolving the Punjab and KP assemblies… he wants to maintain political instability and create problems for the government,” Mr Rashid remarked and added that when the people of Punjab go to vote, they would compare the performances of Shehbaz Sharif as the chief minister with the PTI’s Usman Buzdar.

Meanwhile, a PML-N lawmaker close to Hamza Shehbaz told Us the party was not ready to go to polls in Punjab or anywhere before Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan.

“Let Nawaz come back and then we won’t mind taking up Imran Khan’s challenge,” he commented.

Since former premier Khan decided to dissolve the two provincial assemblies besides tendering resignations from the Sindh and Balochistan legislatures, the former Punjab rulers, the PML-N, have been talking about using all ‘available tactics’ to foil the PTI’s plan to dissolve the two provincial assemblies.

Punjab Assembly Opposition Leader Hamza Shehbaz has come out of ‘hibernation’ and in back-to-back meetings in Lahore with the fellow opposition party, the PPP, vowed to ‘save the PA’ through various available options such as a no-trust move against CM Elahi, imposition of governor’s rule, the governor seeking a vote of confidence from the CM, requesting the apex court to take up Hamza’s review petition on its decision in the Punjab CM election case etc.

Besides, both the PML-N and PPP have agreed to contact ‘disgruntled’ PTI lawmakers to preempt the ruling party’s move to dissolve the PA.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP also met on Tuesday and discussed ways to prevent the possible political crisis in the province.

“PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif should tell his younger brother and nephew to adopt a more daring approach and respond to Khan’s challenge in a political way instead of talking like a dictator about governor’s rule,” a party leader from Punjab told Dawn.

He questioned that if Mr Khan was taking his chances by dissolving the Punjab and KP assemblies where his party had governments, what was stopping the PML-N from going to polls there?

“Holding elections in Punjab and KP provide an opportunity to the PML-N and Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to form their government, especially in Punjab, while holding onto power in the Centre. The Sharifs, especially PM Shehbaz and the opposition leader in Punjab, should come forward and look Mr Khan in the eye and take him up on his challenge of provincial polls,” the party leader suggested, adding the PML-N maintaining its ‘apologetic’ narrative would show its popularity had completely eroded in Punjab and it might need some assurance (for securing a victory) from the establishment before going to polls.

“I will request the Sharif brothers to revisit their strategy and throw an open challenge to Mr Khan to dissolve the Punjab Assembly and start preparations to snatch the province from the PTI through elections,” he further said, and reminded the Sharifs that Punjab was their stronghold.

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