Battleground Punjab

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The road to Islamabad goes through Punjab. No leader or party can dream to form a federal government without winning a good number of seats from this province.

Punjab is the battleground from where Pakistan’s control is gained. Since the province comprises the largest population among all the provinces, any party winning a significant majority from Punjab can form a government in Islamabad – either single-handedly or in coalition with one or more partners, depending on the number of seats won by it in the province.

In the upcoming general elections too Punjab will be the real battleground, as it will not only decide the fate of the PML-N and PTI but will also decide who forms the next government in Islamabad. The stakes are very high and the PTI, PPP and other emerging forces are preparing to take on the PML-N. In a stable and strong democracy it is the voters who decide the fate of political leaders and parties, but, unfortunately, we are not lucky enough to decide our own destination and future. Hence, it will be the powers that be and a handful of feudal, capitalist and influential electables who decide the outcome of the next elections. The party that embraces the maximum number of electables will win the most seats in Punjab.

It is not like the democratic process or system is not manipulated in the west, but hardly anybody can match our skills in this regard. What is more interesting is that democracy and elections are manipulated within the orbit of democracy and the constitution.

Punjab has 141 National Assembly seats even after losing seven seats following the new delimitation of constituencies. Political parties play a key role in elections on the nearly 50 urban constituencies, but not on the remaining 91 rural constituencies.

On most of the urban seats, the PML-N and PTI will contest each other in terms of popularity and domination. However, in my view, the PML-N still has an overall advantage in these constituencies. In 2013, the party won most of the urban seats and continued to maintain its dominance in central and northern Punjab. The PML-N lost only five out of the 50 urban constituencies and won 116 general seats out of the 148 seats from Punjab. But it will face an entirely different situation in the 2018 general elections as it is no more the favourite destination of the electables. In fact, some of the PML-N’s electables are now leaving it to either contest elections as independents or on the PTI’s ticket.

On the other hand, many of the PML-N’s electables from southern Punjab are prepared to join the Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz (South Punjab Province Front) – an alliance of electables candidates. The 46 National Assembly seats in southern Punjab will not only decide the fate of the PML-N but can also precipitate a hung parliament. If the new front wins a dozen or so seats it could play a key role in the formation of a coalition government. If the PML-N still fancies forming such a government in Islamabad then it will need at least half of these 46 seats. The Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz and independents will also play an important role in forming a coalition government in Punjab.

But the real battle will take place in the rural constituencies. The PML-N, PTI and PPP enjoy considerable support in these areas, although they are not the dominant force. It has usually been local groups and electables who have played a key role in most of the rural constituencies. And with the inclusion of many electables in the last few months, the PTI has gained more ground in rural constituencies than it had in the 2013 elections. It was likely to be a three-way battle in southern Punjab as the PPP was also trying hard to regain its lost ground, but the emergence of the new province front has made elections in this region even more intense and interesting.

Before the Supreme Court disqualified former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N was in a comfortable position. Now, many of the PML-N’s electables have already left the party while many others are preparing to do so. Nonetheless, it will be a mistake to undermine the electoral strength and popular support that the PML-N still enjoys in its traditional support base.

On the other hand, the PTI is heavily depending on the popularity of its leaders and electables as it has failed to muster support in the rural constituencies. The party failed to concentrate on these constituencies and build a strong organisation, hence, is now left with no other option but to rely on heavyweight candidates of other parties, mainly the PML-N and PPP. The party of change and ‘Naya Pakistan’ until the last elections, the PTI has completely transformed itself into a traditional party that vies for power politics.

Similarly, the PPP was once the largest party in Punjab but the powers that be did everything to weaken it and now the party is not even a shadow of what it was in the past. To regain its lost ground, the PPP needs to be massively supported by the educated youth. It has to come up with a well-defined plan to fix the education, healthcare, economy and housing sectors. However, so far, neither the PPP nor any other political party has a clear vision of how to tackle these issues. The PPP has no alternative except to again reach out to the downtrodden masses, factory workers, labourers and tillers of the land. It will have to interact with those who cannot pay hefty university fees or hospital bills. The party has to come forward with a welfare agenda to get widespread support.

The Khadim Rizvi-led Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has emerged as the main religious electoral force in Punjab. It enjoys considerable support in every constituency and its rise has marginalised the parties like JI, JUP and other smaller groups. It has a vote bank of at least 10,000 to 20,000 votes in each constituency. Although it might not be able to win seats, it can cause damage to other parties.

Published in on 13-04-2018.