It is election time, and the political scenario is changing fast. For the PML-N, the situation is getting worse with each passing day. The party is in a state of disarray as more and more former MNAs and MPAs are jumping ship to join the PTI or contest as independents. Long-time stalwarts like Ch. Nisar Ali Khan and Zaeem Qadri have deserted the party and thrown an open challenge to the leadership.
The latest wave of defections has virtually wiped out the PML-N’s prospects of victory in south Punjab. The Grand Trunk Road, the bastion of PML-N, too is in jeopardy. A large number of local party leaders in Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Gujrat and other central districts have either switched sides or declared their independence. Things have come to such a pass that party tickets are being refused and returned.
A section of the media sees the hand of the Establishment behind PML-N’s predicament. But the fact is that PML-N has never been an ideological party. It is a conglomerate of various groups who have vested interests and come together to share the loaves and fishes of office. What is happening today happened back in the years 2002, 2008 and 2013 when 80-100 legislators joined the winning bandwagon – PML-Q, PPP and PML-N. History seems to be repeating itself.
Some political pundits are of the view that as many as 100 independents will emerge victorious and form a group to play a decisive role in forming the new government. Those who are standing as independents not only include defectors from the mainstream parties but also members of some religious outfits like the Milli Muslim League, an offshoot of the banned Jamaatud Dawa, that has been refused registration by the Election Commission.
The biggest benefactor from the PML-N’s travails is the PTI. Apart from the youth population, its main power base, the PTI has now turned to realpolitik and coopted a large number of electables. Besides, the PTI has successfully cultivated the religious lobby and won the support of some major pir khanas across the country. But there are still doubts about the party reaching the magic figure, or even close to it, to form the next government alone.
Among the many factors affecting the PML-N’s election campaign is the endless internal squabbles over ticket allocations which has created a sense of demoralisation among its supporters. With Nawaz Sharif out of the race, Shahbaz Sharif is now running the election machine. But he has not been able to make any impact so far. To add to his troubles, recent torrential rains in Lahore caused severe damage to Shahbaz Sharif’s political persona and reputation as an effective administrator.
It is no longer a secret that there is a serious difference of opinion between the Sharif brothers over how to handle the present situation. This has further compounded the party’s predicament. There are two completely opposite narratives espoused by the Sharif brothers. While Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have shown no change in their confrontationist stance, Shahbaz has increasingly taken a conciliatory path. In fact, Shahbaz does not endorse Nawaz’s narrative on khalai makhlooq and in a recent speech held an olive branch and hinted at forming a national government. He also offered to open negotiations for a new political charter, including all stakeholders as well as the security agencies in order to tackle the internal and external challenges facing the country.
The line taken by Shahbaz Sharif is supported by the senior members of the party whose primary interest lies in winning the elections and remaining in the corridors of power. For them, the policy of confrontation can spoil the party’s chances to return to power. Some PML-N leaders genuinely believe that Shahbaz’s reconciliation policy provides the only way out of the present impasse.
As things stand, the ruling party is now a shadow of its former self. The outcome of the coming polls is a foregone conclusion. What we are witnessing today is an Imran Khan wave and it seems nothing can now stop the PTI’s march to victory. The only question now is: what is going to be the PTI’s margin of victory?
All kinds of permutations and combinations are being made. Analysts are generally agreed that the PTI will emerge as the single largest party but whether it will win a simple majority of seats is still not clear. The PML-N has its roots dug deep in Punjab and will offer a tough fight to the PTI. The PPP has its own plans for a comeback in the province which was once its bastion of power. In Sindh, the PPP, despite facing a combined opposition, is expected to easily win a comfortable majority of NA and PA seats. In KP, PTI faces a tough opposition from MMA and PML-N. Balochistan is an open territory where local political groups dominate. In all probability, both in Punjab and at the Centre coalition governments will be formed with the PTI as the senior partner.
[On July 6, 2018, the Accountability Court of Islamabad sentenced Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz to ten years and seven years, respectively, in jail. The impact of this decision on the political career of the two PML-N leaders and on the fate of the party will only be gauged in the days to come. Ed.]