Wednesday, 10pm, two days before Mian Nawaz Sharif’s promised return to the Allama Iqbal International Airport Lahore, it is business as usual in the streets of Basti Saidan Shah in central Lahore. The only difference is the streets are studded with colourful posters and buntings of two parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the two major contenders for power not just in the constituency NA-129 but the entire province. The posters and banners of a beaming Abdul Aleem Khan easily outnumber those of a timid Ayaz Sadiq.
In the hot and humid July weather, the campaigns get started in the evenings and last till late night. We pass by the camp office of PML-N which looks rather deserted. We were later told the councillor of the area had been hauled up by law enforcers, to stop him from mobilising people to welcome their leader at the airport. The PTI camp close by has relatively more men sitting idle on chairs. Not far from it is another camp which seems more alive than the other two because of na’ats playing loudly on speakers. The bearded men represent Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the new entrants on the electoral scene.
This, according to some analysts, roughly captures the party position in Punjab, at least in terms of number of votes polled. It discounts Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the once winner of Punjab, which has fielded candidates on most seats even this time. And then there are the famed ‘independents’, the compulsive winners, who would join and aid the majority party in forming the next government.
With more than half the National Assembly seats (140 out of a total of 272), Punjab is the deciding province. Since the last election, the political parties having become more regional than federal, there are more chances of the winners of Punjab to form a government at the centre.
All eyes are therefore set on which way Punjab swings. The polls and surveys favoured PML-N for some time before starting to give some leverage to PTI. Less than two weeks before the general election, how does one look at the province that matters the most.
Predicting an election result is never easy for the simple reason that it often backfires. Should one believe the polls or the ground realities and perception of political engineering, coercion and selective accountability which make the entire exercise lacklustre and voters indifferent? Will people in Punjab vote for corruption and dams or mass transits, motorways and electricity? Would “Mujhe Kyun Nikala” matter more or education, health and employment? Will they vote on dhara bandi, biraderi (clan) or be divided along rural-urban lines? Who will Labaik (TLP) favour — PML-N, PTI or itself? And is it even okay to mention the good old PPP or has Punjab forgotten it for good?
Arif Nizami, senior analyst and editor, thinks it would be a tough fight between the PML-N and PTI in Punjab, “no matter what the surveys say.
“PTI is depending on Imran Khan’s charismatic personality and the perception that PML-N will not be allowed to return. Certain ‘institutions’ are also giving the tailwind to Imran, even though the DG ISPR has claimed they are neutral. But on social media, everybody is talking openly — that certain ‘ahelkars’ were used to force candidates and legislators to change loyalties,” he adds.
On their part, PTI and Chairman Imran Khan have no qualms. They had started bringing ‘winning candidates’ into the party fold even for the 2013 election; this time they have only taken it to perfection. If they are being favoured by institutions, they probably feel entitled to such favours since they are ‘untested’ and ‘uncorrupted’. They need to win an election first in order to bring any change, is their logic. In the words of Nizami, “Khan is already acting as prime minister designate”.
Senior journalist Suhail Warraich is not in two minds at all on PTI’s victory. With PML-N and PPP over-stretched, the effort is that PTI should form the next government. After all it was Warraich who wrote his much-discussed Urdu column, titled, ‘The Party is Over’ for PML-N after the Panama Leaks. His calculations regarding Punjab do not add up to a PTI victory if it doesn’t win overwhelmingly from KP: “In central Punjab, the PTI may win only 8 to 10 seats out of the total 82. In South Punjab, out of the 41 seats, it may win 10 to 12. The rest are independents in both central and South Punjab and they will join PTI.”
Warraich thinks the perception that “PML-N will not be allowed to come is likely to deter the voter who might decide not to vote for them if they can’t form the government”.
What will happen on the election day is difficult to predict and some analysts are still not ready to give an open field to PTI. Nusrat Javeed, senior television anchor, thinks “the collective election experience of PML-N is a lot more than people can imagine”. The party knows how to take the voter to vote, he says. “Besides, it is not all too easy to rig in the cities in the age of cell phones and television cameras. The PML-N votebank will gel with Sharif’s return, the campaign will be intense.”
Javeed brushes aside the “strict classic rural-urban divide in most parts of Punjab where, with the road network, you need only a couple of hours to reach Lahore. The dhara bandi is also irrelevant in the province where two brothers in the same household are going to vote differently (one for PML-N and one for PTI). The thing is that we [the media] are using old tools to analyse a fresh situation; those tools have become redundant. The media in Pakistan will face what the media in the US faced with Trump.”
Tehreek-i-Labaik (TLP) is another factor that is worth watching in Punjab, especially because it is fielding more candidates than PPP (over a hundred) for National Assembly alone. Some say it only filled the vacuum left by rightwing religious parties. Both Warraich and Nizami think TLP is not going to affect either PML-N or PTI in the election. Javeed says, “Labaik will not matter in the centre but I will not be surprised if they bag five to six seats in the provincial assembly. They have quite an influence from the Attock to Jhelum belt. In Punjab, they may turn out to be the third largest party. They may become a formidable player in the future.”
What about PPP and its gains in Punjab as promised by Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari? With him and sister hounded by the accountability bureau (NAB) now, the party had already lost its chances with some early defections, culminating in a party bigwig Manzoor Wattoo’s exit. “PPP does not matter at all. There is no future for PPP in the province; it will be a miracle if they make an impact,’ says Nizami.
Javeed concurs. “PPP is in a bad shape. But they still might bag three to four seats in Punjab, for example Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmood’s. Kaira is a strong candidate and will put up a neck-and-neck fight.”
Broadly, everyone seems unimpressed with PPP’s performance in the province. Some think it’s the Zardari baggage, whom everyone in Punjab believes to be the most corrupt man. For Javeed the party became irrelevant “when the jiyalas took gas licenses during Benazir Bhutto’s time and forgot all about ideology. Aitzaz Ahsan is not your typical jiyala anymore or an icon of left/liberal thought. He is only an elitist lawyer for the ultra rich of the world.”
Read also: Sindh at stake
So what will the election in the province be all about? No it won’t be about corruption and dams, or mass transits, motorways and electricity; nor will it be about education, health and employment. It will only be about a pro- and anti-Nawaz vote.