LAHORE: A little past 9pm outside the Sharif campaign headquarters in Model Town, as jubilant, flag-waving supporters begin to arrive in droves, an architect of the PML-N’s campaign says, “Welcome to the victory party.”
Inside, the Sharifs, Nawaz, Maryam and other family members, are keeping a watchful eye on TV as early results pour in. Senior PML-N leaders are milling around, constantly checking their phones for updates from the field.
Nawaz himself is in a cautious mood, still refusing to be drawn into speculation about how many seats his party can win but hammering away at his line that the country needs a clear majority to address the serious problems that confront it.
“I’ve said all along, whichever party wins, it needs to have a clear majority. It’s not about me or about any party,” Sharif says.
The ostensible prime minister-elect, though, cannot hide his irritation at what he sees as the PML-N being pegged back by a joint PTI-PPP barrage.
“Both of these parties have attacked us. Look at what that lady Firdous Ashiq Awan did just to try and undermine a big leader of ours, Khwaja Asif,” Sharif complains, referring to the PPP’s Awan withdrawing her candidacy in Sialkot city against Asif in a reciprocal deal with the PTI hours before voting began.
“Look at the power crisis,” Sharif continues. “Imran Khan says that the power crisis isn’t Zardari’s fault. If it isn’t Zardari’s fault then whose fault is it?” an incredulous Sharif asks.
As the minutes tick by, however, and results begin to show a decisive swing towards the PML-N, Sharif’s demeanour changes.
When handed a note informing him that unofficial results have him winning his National Assembly contest in Sargodha, Sharif breaks into a smile.
Nearby, Pervez Rasheed, a PML-N senator and a close Sharif confidant, offers his own assessment of the election. “The spoilers have done their bit. There is no wave,” Rasheed says with a wry smile. “The spoilers did what was needed of them,” Rasheed says of the PTI.
In Maryam Nawaz’s estimation, the PTI challenge originated from the dismal performance of the PPP-led federal government.
“If, as you say, we were given a scare, I’d say the reason is the PPP,” the daughter of Nawaz says of the PTI challenge that ultimately sputtered. “This electricity crisis, this governance mess, people may have started to think about us in the same way.”
But Maryam Nawaz also admits that the PML-N has some soul-searching to do: “The party needs to be re-organised. We haven’t really focused on the party and keeping it strong. Our MNAs and MPAs didn’t do much for the party; they focused more on the government side of things.”
With the mood in the Sharif HQ quickly turning celebratory, aides are quietly already turning to what comes next.
“The army,” says one Sharif aide, voluntarily bringing up the fraught issue of relations between the army and Sharif. “In our strategy meetings, we discussed it and Mian sahib seemed to understand that it isn’t that big a challenge, that it can be handled relatively easily. But Mian sahib has a tendency to go off on his own tangent,” the aide says, his voice trailing off.
Maryam Nawaz, though, believes her father will handle matters differently this time. “He is a different man,” she says. “He’s seasoned, he’s a statesman, he has understanding, he’s a mature leader,” Maryam Nawaz says of her father, downplaying the possibility of friction with army.
Talk among aides also begins to switch to who will be in which office in a PML-N government. Will Shahbaz Sharif really quit the Punjab chief ministership for the federal water and power ministry to try and address the energy crisis?
“He’ll be up for it. But if he leaves Punjab, then that will open all sorts of delicate questions about who takes his place. That question may be too difficult, so leaving could be a problem,” an aide says.
Earlier, in his election camp office, Shafqat Mahmood, a PTI contender in Lahore, was already reflecting on the PTI expectations falling far short of reality. “Honestly, I’m not seeing a landslide. We should have done better,” Mahmood says.
In Mahmood’s assessment of his own seat, NA-126, lies a clue about why the PML-N has surged to enormous gains in Punjab and left the PTI trailing. “Our strategy was to sweep the posh areas and divide the poorer parts,” Mahmood says.
But the strategy failed overall because the PML-N appears to have made deep inroads into the less-well-off sections of Punjab’s population, historically a PPP vote bank.
“We protected our base,” a Sharif aide says. “The club-going, mummy-daddy crowd, the upper class, was never with us to begin with. But we won a vote this time that he haven’t really before: poorer people.”
Out on the streets of Lahore, late into Saturday night, there is no doubt that the established power has quashed the challenger.
As PML-N supporters swarm the streets, bringing traffic to a halt, dancing and singing on main thoroughfares, the PTI wave of supporters, so obvious until hours earlier, has already melted away.
Gone are the cricket bats and out have come the stuffed lions.