UNEXPECTED it certainly was but the PML-N surging to a near-majority in the National Assembly in Saturday’s elections may more accurately be described as stunning. This was supposed to be the era of coalitions, of parties and voters too divided to allow any one voice to rise above all others. And this was the election and campaign in which Imran Khan and his PTI threatened to turn electoral logic on its head and make unprecedented gains, particularly given the wild swing in momentum towards the PTI in the last two weeks of the campaign. Extraordinarily, none of that materialised and it is the PML-N that has produced a wave of its own on the back of silent voters who turned out in droves to catapult the party to power once again.
Why were the predictions so far off, with no one, barring the most partisan of PML-N supporters, predicting the scale of Saturday’s success? At this early stage, three reasons seem to be responsible. First, the media, dominated by and representative of urban, middle-class Pakistan, drank a bit too much of the PTI Kool-Aid, warming to a message that resonated with a large section of the media and overlooking, or perhaps just cut off from, other important sections of the Pakistani electorate. In a one-man, one-vote system, emphasising one group’s aspirations can produce skewed analyses. Second, Imran Khan himself helped build the hype with his soaring promises of unprecedented success delivered in a brazenly confident manner and backed by impressive turnouts at his many rallies in the last days of the campaign. The emotional draw of Mr Khan’s message was in the end harder for analysts and the media to resist than the electorate itself. Third, the PML-N’s solid campaign both protected its base and appears to have achieved an important breakthrough for the party — the less well-to-do and poorer sections of the electorate. In making that breakthrough the PML-N appears to have benefited from the PPP’s abysmal performance over the past five years and the party’s non-campaign.
Once the dust settles, both winner and loser — the PML-N and PTI — will have much to be proud of. Despite being relentlessly attacked from all sides, the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif resolutely kept their focus on what needs to be done to solve grave national issues, a clear mandate being the first step towards that. And despite falling short of its own lofty expectations, the PTI has injected a much-needed dose of vigour and vitality into the democratic project.