With the 2018 general elections only weeks away, the season of rallies and public meetings has begun in full swing. From Karachi to Punjab to KP, political leaders have become hyperactive.

Last week, while the PPP reached out to the people of Karachi, PTI chief Imran Khan put up a massive political show in Lahore. Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal held a jalsa in Mardan, followed closely by PML-N’s power show in Sahiwal. A week of mega rallies in different parts of the country by major political parties has virtually kicked off the 2018 election campaign.

Last Sunday, both Imran Khan and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari held mass rallies in Pakistan’s two biggest cities, which for decades have been dominated by other parties – MQM in the case of Karachi and PML-N in Lahore. People in both cities saw new political forces in action and responded enthusiastically.

Given the crucial importance attached to the coming elections which would determine the future course of politics in the country, electioneering has begun with full force, with various parties coining new slogans to sway public opinion and attract popular vote..

Not surprisingly, the PML-N is playing the victim card and has adopted the slogan of ‘giving respect to the vote’ as its main campaign theme.  Both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz are repeating this mantra before crowds of supporters in one city after another. Both father and daughter have crafted an aggressive political style which they think will appeal to the common run of voters in Punjab.

But the ex-PM is appearing more and more like a drowning man trying to catch at a straw. For, in the background lurk the corruption cases in the accountability court which are fast nearing completion. Needless to say, an adverse verdict will come as a big shock to PML-N and radically alter the country’s political landscape. The recent disqualification of Khawaja Asif has dealt another serious blow to the PML-N and intensified the process of defection and demoralisation within its ranks.

Nawaz Sharif is desperately fighting back, but it is doubtful how many senior party leaders would stand by him when it comes to the crunch. With each passing day, the cracks in the party are widening. The desertion of some half-a- dozen PML-N lawmakers from south Punjab is seen by analysts as only the beginning of a process of further fragmentation of the party.

Furthermore, in Punjab, which is the PML-N’s political base, it is facing a formidable challenge from a resurgent PTI. Already many defectors from the party have joined the PTI bandwagon, while some electables are reportedly preparing to switch sides.

PTI’s power show in Lahore last week was a grand success. In the course of his two-hour marathon speech, Imran Khan announced a comprehensive 11-point charter of reform that his party will implement after coming to power. He coined a new slogan of “One Pakistan” in place of the old one of “Naya Pakistan”, signifying the party’s increased emphasis on inclusive development as a step towards a welfare state based on the principles of Islam, to use Imran’s own words.

Reflecting the aspirations of the youth, the PTI’s 11-point charter focuses on the development of human capital such as education, health and environment in contrast to the PML-N’s obsession with motorways and other grand construction projects. Imran Khan also talked about creating jobs by encouraging investment and improving the environment for business and boosting tourism.

With a large number of electables in its ranks, the party leadership is now more confident of winning the next general elections with a comfortable margin.  Since the road to Islamabad runs through Punjab, the PTI is now concentrating all its energy on this province and making steady gains. Unlike the PPP which may win a couple of seats in Karachi, the PTI seems poised to replace the PML-N as the single largest party in Punjab in the coming general elections.

The other major party in the electoral field is the PPP which was virtually wiped out in Punjab in the 2013 elections. No doubt, the PPP’s power base in Sindh has remained intact, but, with its poor governance record and reputation for corruption, it has lost its appeal to the electorate in Punjab. However, the party which has now reorganized itself hopes to pick up some seats in the province, especially in south Punjab.

In the opinion of some analysts, in the case of a hung parliament, PPP can emerge as a power broker. The wily Asif Zardari can spring a surprise at any time as he recently did in Balochistan and in the course of the Senate chairman’s elections. In view of his past record of successful political manipulations and alliance making, many political pundits don’t take him lightly when he says that the next prime minister will be from the PPP.

All told, the coming polls are likely to throw up a completely new political configuration as opposed to the previous one dominated mainly by the PML-N and the PPP.