Winning in Punjab key to victory in Pakistan polls

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party chose to keep Mr Shehbaz Sharif as Punjab's chief minister instead of having him replace his brother Nawaz Sharif as prime minister after the latter was barred from office following a corruption probe int
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party chose to keep Mr Shehbaz Sharif as Punjab's chief minister instead of having him replace his brother Nawaz Sharif as prime minister after the latter was barred from office following a corruption probe into his finances.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ruling party beefs up infrastructure in the province in frantic bid to hold on to power

LAHORE (Punjab) • Above the pristine lobby of a new hepatitis prevention and treatment clinic in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's Punjab province, a portrait of Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif smiles down on the waiting patients.

This is the Punjab that Mr Sharif's ruling party wants Pakistanis to see: a gleaming new building of white tiles and anti-bacterial paint, where doctors in crisp, white uniforms work in orderly offices.

It is part of a soaring infrastructure budget that could win votes ahead of the election, due by the middle of next year, as Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party tries to hold on to power after his brother Nawaz Sharif was barred from being prime minister, following a corruption investigation into his finances.

The scandal raises the likelihood of a close election campaign that could fuel anti-United States sentiment and accelerate a pivot towards China, which is investing billions in the country.

Last month, Mr Shehbaz Sharif called for an end to American assistance after US President Donald Trump said Pakistan continues to harbour terrorists and asked its archrival India to play a larger role in his new strategy for Afghanistan.

Yet, if Mr Sharif's PML-N party were to lose power or be forced into a coalition government, ties between the US and the world's only Muslim nuclear-armed nation could unravel even faster.

The key to victory is Punjab. Home to 110 million people - more than half the country's population - Punjab sends more lawmakers to the National Assembly than the other four provinces combined.

No party has ever taken full control of Parliament without winning in Punjab.

When Mr Nawaz Sharif was barred from office in July following the anti-graft probe, the ruling party had to make a choice: replace Mr Nawaz with his brother - the natural choice for a family dynasty that has been running the country on and off since 1990 - or keep him in Lahore. They kept him in Lahore.

"The PML-N's decision to keep Shehbaz in Punjab and not have him run for Nawaz's seat is about retaining the party's grasp," said Mr Shailesh Kumar, an analyst at Eurasia Group. "Shehbaz is far more valuable by staying in Punjab."

So Mr Shahid Khaqan Abbasi became caretaker premier until the election and left Mr Shehbaz Sharif, 65, to get on with shoring up support in the province.

Over the past two years, 5,500km of highways, including "farm-to- market" roads, have been laid down, taking the administration's presence into the villages of Pakistan's breadbasket. The administration has also built a modern bus network in Lahore and is constructing a metro railway.

And the pace of construction is accelerating.

Still, all the new infrastructure may not sway voters accustomed to political promises and pre-election largesse unless Mr Sharif can also improve the most crippling infrastructure headache: electricity. Even in the major cities, blackouts remain a daily reality in Pakistan.

The government has pledged to end the cuts by next year, and the Sharif administration has been building plants across Punjab.

The hardest part of providing stable power is the transmission network and despite government investment to revamp the grid, a series of failures this summer cast doubts over how soon the network will be able to handle demand that is rising at 7 per cent a year.

The factor that may tip the balance is China, which is pouring money into roads, power stations, transmission lines and ports as part of the US$50 billion (S$68 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China has directly invested US$2.8 billion in Pakistan in the past four fiscal years, compared with US$533 million from the US, said Pakistan's central bank.

For now, "the PML-N continues to be the leading party in Punjab", said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "The decisive question will be how he deals with electricity."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2017, with the headline 'Winning in Punjab key to victory in Pakistan polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe