In 2022, politics in Pakistan stands at a fascinating juncture with an intensification of opposition challenge to the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. On February 27, the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) commenced a “long march” from Karachi to Islamabad with the stated aim to oust the central government run by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Among Pakistani opposition parties, the PPP retains a critical position owing to its tenure in power in Sindh, Pakistan’s second largest province. The PPP, founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, grew out of a five-month-long mass movement that led to the end of military dictator Ayub Khan’s government in March 1969. The party has been a formidable actor in Pakistani politics ever since, enjoying multiple stints in power following its inception in 1967. Before their deaths, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto both served as the country’s prime minister in the 1970s (1973–1977) and 1980s and 1990s (1988–1990, 1993–1996), respectively. And although the PPP today operates outside the corridors of power at the national level, the party remains an important oppositional force through its role in the national parliament and through grassroots mobilization.
In recent years, the party has moved away from its early populist moorings that defined its politics in the 1970s, but as the literature on political parties clearly highlights, the “founding context” of a party leaves a lasting impact, shaping its organizational and structural dynamics for decades. Notably, the current PPP does not exhibit the aggressive oppositional behavior that is the hallmark of populist parties in the contemporary world. The narratives of polarization, right-wing nationalism, and anti-system populism—as exhibited by the current ruling party, the PTI—are missing from the PPP’s politics. The PPP, in contrast, largely operates as a conventional opposition party whose resistance to government does not include an anti-system narrative or politics of lockdowns.
Although the PPP has not been in power at the federal level since 2013, it has continued to rule Sindh Province, home to the country’s largest metropolis, Karachi. In that capacity, the party has resisted the interventions of the PTI central government (locally perceived to be belligerent) and played a leading role in oppositional politics in Pakistan. To preserve its stronghold in Sindh and to stave off the challenge from both Sindhi and Mohajir nationalists, the PPP has been compelled to tinker with ethnic nationalism. (Mohajir Pakistanis are Urdu-speaking migrants from India who settled in large numbers in urban Sindh after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.) As the party in power at the provincial level, the PPP has maintained an assertive posture toward Islamabad in order to uphold its autonomy in Karachi. The party has never enjoyed the comprehensive support of the state apparatus, popularly known as the establishment, even when it formed the government at both the national and provincial levels in 1972, 1988, 1993, and 2008. The PPP’s various stints in power in Islamabad were marred by strained relations with the establishment; the two governments of Benazir Bhutto were dismissed by presidents Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1990 and Farooq Leghari in 1996.
In 2022, the PPP remains an important factor in the politics of Pakistan despite its electoral weight being confined to Sindh in the last two general elections (2013 and 2018). Since 2018, the party has walked a delicate tightrope to balance the imperatives of holding on to power in Sindh and joining national opposition parties in a collaborative anti-government coalition known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). The PPP left the PDM in 2021 following the election of Yousaf Raza Gillani as the opposition leader in the upper chamber. However, by the end of 2021, the PPP’s ties with other opposition parties had smoothed as the latter recognized the PPP’s position as a formidable force of opposition in Pakistan. The following observations examine the various facets of the PPP’s oppositional politics, which will critically impact Pakistan’s political landscape ahead of general elections in 2023.
The PPP’s Fine Balancing Act
The PPP positions itself as the champion of provincial autonomy in Pakistan’s relatively centralist federation. In the case of Sindh, PPP thinking goes, the central government has long engaged in overreach, for example by transforming Karachi into the federal capital in 1948 and merging Sindh into the mega province of One Unit in 1955.1 The PPP has traditionally acted to protect Sindhi interests against a perceived domineering center as well as against the ethnic “other” represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the premier party of Mohajirs. Currently, the PPP plays the role of opposition in two ways: in the national Parliament, where it contests Khan’s PTI government in Islamabad, and in the federation’s second-largest province, where as the ruling party it champions provincial agency.
The cause of provincial autonomy is not new for the PPP. Indeed, while in power from 2008 to 2013, the party’s government passed the landmark Eighteenth Amendment. This 2010 amendment provided an unprecedented expansion in the administrative and fiscal powers of provinces in Pakistan by changing 102 articles of the constitution. After the PTI came to power in Islamabad in 2018, the PPP formed a government in Sindh, the only province that was not controlled by the PTI or its allies. For its part, the PTI government has consistently sought to reduce the autonomy of the PPP-led Sindh government. Relations between Karachi and Islamabad have been hampered by several contentious issues, including over water usage, the results of the 2017 Census, and the governance of two islands along the Karachi coastline.
An Interventionist Center
In 2021, provincial water sharing became a hot button issue in the context of Sindh’s ties with Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and Islamabad. Over the years, there have been numerous calls to revise the 1991 Water Accord, which includes fixed quotas for water storage and usage for each province. Many in Sindh argue that the then Nawaz Sharif government coerced smaller provinces into signing the accord against their will. In addition, Sindh has accused the upper riparian province—Punjab—of stealing its water by building dams and canals that have deprived it of its fair share.
The PPP government called for the resignation of the head of the Indus River System Authority for allegedly helping Punjab steal water designated for Sindh and for attacking Sindh’s representative in a meeting in May 2021. But the PTI, supported by its affiliates in Punjab who claim Sindh is misrepresenting the water figures, has resisted the PPP’s demand for renegotiation and accused the PPP of exploiting the water issue for partisan political gains.
Water is not the only issue that put the PPP on a collision course with Islamabad. On August 31, 2020, President Arif Alvi promulgated the Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) Ordinance as part of Islamabad’s bid to take over the islands of Bundal and Buddo located off the Karachi coast. This action united the PPP government and Sindh’s civil society as they protested against the federal government’s purported land grabbing. The PPP leadership likened this takeover to the Indian government’s nullification of Jammu and Kashmir’s unique constitutional status in August 2019.
Yet again, the PPP was obliged to resist the PTI’s aggressive intervention. To achieve its aims, the PPP government in Karachi adopted a multipronged strategy: the passage of a resolution in the Sindh Assembly against the ordinance, protest in the National Assembly, and the fostering of a common cause between Sindhi nationalists and civil society organizations. The PPP’s efforts bore fruit, as the federal government ultimately failed to get the PIDA Ordinance approved by the Parliament. (Executive ordinances must be approved within 120 days for them to become permanent.)
Implementation of the PTI government’s policy on national curriculum also put Sindh and Islamabad on a collision course. Sindh refuses to adopt the newly introduced Single National Curriculum, as the Eighteenth Amendment stipulates that education be the exclusive domain of provinces. Education remains a deeply contested issue in Sindh in light of competing interpretations of history by various ethnic communities. Both Mohajir and Sindhi nationalist movements clash over the historical legacy of Muhammad bin Qasim (the eighth-century Arab invader) and Raja Dahir (the local Hindu ruler). With such contrasting interpretations of history, the PPP and Sindh government remain deeply critical of Islamabad’s control over school curriculum. The Eighteenth Amendment recognized education as a provincial subject, thereby conferring the power to draft curriculum to the provinces. In this deeply polarized context, the PPP’s forceful defense of provincial rights in the domain of education won it widespread support in Sindh.
The PPP has been an important player in the ongoing opposition to the PTI government. Since the 2018 general elections, the party has resisted the populist rule of Imran Khan. And it has done so alongside other opposition parties, including its longtime rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). In the larger national theater of politics, the PPP has operated both within and outside the umbrella opposition alliance, the PDM. Formed in 2020, the PDM currently comprises the PPP, PML-N, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam under its leader Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), and ethnic parties like the Balochistan National Party and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.
However, since its inception, the PDM has been handicapped by rocky relations and internal disagreements. For instance, alliance partners—particularly the PPP and the PML-N—accuse each other of trying to secretly engage with the military establishment, which has been criticized for its repeated interference in Pakistan’s politics since independence. The PPP generally seeks to avoid an all-out confrontation with the military establishment, while the PML-N takes a more hawkish posture.
Alliance partners also disagree on the extent to which opposition forces should pursue direct action via street protests and indirect action via resignations from national and provincial assemblies (to put pressure on the Khan government). Thus far, the PPP has resisted the strategy of other PDM parties to quit provincial legislatures. Instead, the party has considered this move a last resort—a final, so-called nuclear option to be adopted only in extreme circumstances. As the PPP’s support base has been largely confined to Sindh since 2013, it cannot afford to lose power in Karachi.
The question of collective resignations from the assemblies has fractured the PDM. In April 2021, the PPP withdrew from the alliance after the PDM presented it with a “show cause” notice for rejecting mass resignation proposals. The PDM leadership also took the PPP to task for allegedly joining hands with the PTI government in order to secure the Senate opposition leader’s slot. Once the PPP’s Gillani was elected as the Senate opposition leader with the support of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP)—a party widely believed to have been created by the military establishment—the PDM leadership’s stern reaction was inevitable. The PML-N was already aggrieved toward the PPP for its alleged role in the collapse of the former’s government in Balochistan Province. (The PPP had surprisingly thrown its weight behind the BAP ahead of the 2018 general elections.) These developments exposed the failure of the PPP and PML-N to overcome their decades-old rivalry in the pursuit of opposition unity. Even the common goal of removing the Khan government from power has not been sufficient to align these parties, thereby hindering the opposition alliance’s possible success.
As of January 2022, the PPP has not formally rejoined the PDM even though testy relations have thawed between the two leading opposition parties. PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s call for a “long march” against the Khan government received support from other opposition parties, even though a formal union between the PPP and PDM was not yet on the table. In sum, the PPP walks a fine line in its quest to safeguard its government in Karachi while also projecting itself as a major opposition actor on the national scene. These contradictory pressures have forced the PPP to employ a variety of political strategies, ranging from challenging the PTI government outright to adopting a softer posture when required.
Sources of Pragmatism
When analyzing the PPP’s unique oppositional stance, one needs to acknowledge how its control of Sindh compels it to adopt a pragmatic posture at the national level. Unlike the PML-N and JUI-F, the PPP must perform a balancing act—placing one foot in the government of Karachi and the other in the federal opposition movement against the PTI. In this context, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has repeatedly cautioned allies against “impos[ing] their will and dictation” on the party.
While the PPP negotiates this tricky balance, the party is also passing through a generational transition. In January 2021, Bilawal—the son of assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, former president Asif Ali Zardari—was elected as party president unopposed. Following in the footsteps of his deceased mother and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bilawal is attempting to bring charisma back to the party’s leadership. Since its inception, the party has been dominated by the Bhutto family, and intraparty elections are a rare occurrence. The PPP, like other parties in Pakistan, suffers from weak internal democracy. In de jure terms, the chief decisionmaking body is the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which acts as the “nerve center of the party” and monitors party members’ activities. In de facto terms, however, the CEC plays second fiddle to the party’s top leadership.
Despite its incrementalist approach to opposition against the PTI government, the PPP continues to serve as the grand symbol of opposition—not only against the PTI but also against the broader dominance of the establishment in national politics. Historically, the party has been at the heart of major opposition movements in Pakistan, such as the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy against president Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980s. However, at times, it has also adopted a softer stance toward the establishment. For instance, in 2007, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan from a self-imposed exile after coming to an understanding with president Pervez Musharraf through the issuance of the National Reconciliation Ordinance.
Yet, generally, even when it was in power in Islamabad, the PPP functioned as an outsider. It never received the kind of support from the military establishment that was provided to the PML-N and later the PTI. Hence, despite its multiple stints in office at the federal level and its willingness to occasionally compromise with the powers-that-be, the party does not enjoy the same degree of proximity to the establishment—which distinguishes the PPP from its peers.
The PPP currently remains in control of the Sindhi vote. But despite its command over the Sindhi electorate, it had to fight pitched battles within the province—facing strong opposition from various factions of the MQM, the anti-PPP Sindhi land-owning elite, Sindhi nationalists, and the PTI. The anti-PPP parties have joined hands to provide a serious challenge to the Sindh government. Despite its relative decline, the MQM has continued to back the establishment in Sindh. On issues such as the center’s take-over of Karachi through imposition of Article 149, the MQM has sided with the federal government. Hence, an unstable equilibrium prevails over politics in the province, pushing the PPP to tinker with soft ethnic nationalism and position itself as a spokesperson for Sindh. Consequently, the PPP’s political agenda and policy profile fit the description of an ethnic party. It has adopted positions on various issues that are similar to the narrative of the conventional ethnic nationalists. Whether it is the question of the alleged undercounting of Sindhis in the national census, the settlement of Afghan refugees in Karachi, the resolution of water disputes, or the central government’s attempt to impose a national curriculum on Sindh, the PPP unfailingly adopts textbook ethnic party positions. Meanwhile, it operates as a party of the federation in the national arena. Thus, particularly given no apparent contradictions between the two positions, the PPP continues to be a fascinating political actor in the context of Pakistan’s ethnic federalism.
The PPP stands at an interesting juncture in 2022. The two previous general elections in Pakistan (2013 and 2018) saw the PPP confined to Sindh due to its dismal electoral performance in other provinces. In 2022, the PPP sought to recapture its position as a party of the federation in the rest of the country. In its first three decades, the party was a viable political contender in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and most developed province. During the last two elections, however, it failed to garner a significant number of votes in Punjab. Since then, the PPP has been attempting to reorganize itself in Punjab. Indeed, if it can build on its roots in south Punjab, it could make a comeback. The party has a stronghold in the region, where it supports demands for a new province in the Siraiki-speaking districts of southern Punjab and, as a result of party patronage networks, enjoys the support of electoral heavyweights.
In Sindh, the PPP, with its blend of ethnic nationalism, looks poised to continue its dominance within the province in the face of fragmented Sindhi nationalists as well as a divided MQM. Even if the PPP fails to capture power in Islamabad, it looks set to retain its credentials as a party that stands up to a hegemonic central government. With the next general elections scheduled for 2023, the PPP is stepping up its visibility in national-level opposition politics, even leading a “long march” that began on February 27, 2022.
Beyond street agitations, the party has intensified its contact with other opposition parties, with an eye on the 2023 general elections. The visit by Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif’s residence in Lahore in February 2022 reflects a renewed vigor for cooperation in the opposition ranks. Will Bilawal be a Bonaparte and thrive on the inherited charisma of his grandfather? Will the PPP be able to accelerate its opposition to the PTI in 2022–2023? The stage is set for an interesting display of oppositional politics by the PPP.
The author is grateful to Professor Mohammad Waseem and Nadeem F. Paracha for their valuable insights on the PPP’s role in Pakistani politics.
This article is part of the Politics of Opposition in South Asia initiative run by Carnegie’s South Asia Program.
1Asma Faiz, In Search of Lost Glory: Nationalism in Pakistan (London: Hurst Publishers, 2021), 40–62.