THE PPP will win. No, the PML-N will. No, the PTI tsunami will sweep Pakistan.
The run-up to an election sees the usual set of extravagant public claims. Behind the scenes, the political number crunchers are more circumspect.
That PTI wave? The more realistic will admit, either the party will grab no more than a handful of seats or it will storm into contention for power.
A PML-Q-esque 50 or 60 doesn’t quite add up, the PTI knows, because the wave will either turn up or it won’t, and the party doesn’t have the electoral machinery to get a solid, middle-of-the-road win tally.
The PML-N domination of central and north Punjab? The frantic attacks against Khan and the frenetic party mobilisation tell a story of their own. The election will be more a roll of the dice than a preordained re-coronation of Fortress Sharif.
And the PPP. Ah yes, the PPP and their uber-magician, Asif Zardari. On the face of it, something quite normal is happening in the PPP: the closer we edge to an election, the more the party is looking to its leader, Zardari.
But the reason isn’t the PPP has an election-winning strategy that it’s looking to the boss to execute; it’s more that the party is hoping the boss has a plan to sneak them through to victory in a hostile electoral environment.
More hope, less plan — that’s how the PPP electoral strategy outside the small Zardari circle is shaping up.
The PPP will now admit much: incumbency is a problem; the governance disaster a bigger problem; and hanging on to power will be tough. What they won’t admit, though, is that they have a leader problem.
Winning elections nationally has always been about a visible and accessible face. Leaders who are out there, holding rallies, motivating the party machinery, sweet-talking the candidates, energising the voters — essentially, preparing the party for the crucial, but complex, final push on election day itself.
The PML-N has Nawaz. The PTI has Imran. The PPP had ZAB and BB.
Now, the PPP has Zardari. It’s a problem that the party has had time to absorb.
Punjab, a province in which the party has been rudderless for a long, long time, perhaps since the time of Khar, was supposed to be a regular port of call for Zardari.
But in a couple of years he’s visited only a couple of times. Security fears — real and perceived — hobble Zardari’s movements.
Sindh, which he trusts more, has been visited more frequently but there are no real electoral threats to challenge the PPP’s dominance there.
Bilawal, sure to be trotted out closer to the election, is untested. They’d love him in the heart of Sindh even if he spoke French and sported an ascot, but can he energise the party in Punjab?
His sisters are even younger and even more untested. The bloodline to ZAB and BB helps in the personality-obsessed vote bank the PPP courts, but can the sisters get the voter’s blood racing?
Sindh and Punjab is where the PPP’s electoral fortunes will live or die. But the old formula — a barnstorming ZAB, an indefatigable BB — can’t be applied to the new faces.
For the PPP voter, a visible and accessible party leader matters more than it does to other parties. The jiyala is emotional, he’s rooted in the cult of personality, he wants to celebrate and venerate.
Zardari can’t be that leader and the Bhutto kids are too green still. The PPP won’t admit it, but it is a worry.
Leader and message — on neither front does the PPP have a clear answer. Zardari won’t be leading rallies and the PPP hasn’t yet figured out a campaign message to grab the voter’s attention.
Zoom out enough and rallies and slogans and corner meetings and pep talks and strategy meetings can all seem like noise and that other, immutable fundamentals are what really drive the electorate. But the minutiae of a campaign do matter, and the tighter the election, the more they matter.
Like when Zardari turned up in Faisalabad for a rally a few days before the 2008 elections. It energised the party and helped the PPP grab five seats where many feared a rout.
Zardari isn’t blind to the problem, though: where we can compensate, he has.If the voter is the great unknown, the party machinery — the candidates and the workers — have been worked on through proxies. So in Sindh, there is Faryal and a division of labour regionally.
North and central Punjab have been virtually written off, but in south Punjab Zardari’s ace in the pocket is Gilani, whose profile has diminished since his ouster as PM but only temporarily. Come election time, the charge in south Punjab will almost certainly be led by Gilani.
The regionalisation of the electorate had been in motion before Zardari took over the PPP. Whether by design or by default, Zardari has encouraged that trend to make up for the particular constraints on him as party leader.
So there’s one leadership for south Punjab — where the PPP picked up 18 of the 41 available seats in 2008 — and another for Sindh — where the PPP picked up 33 seats.
But mitigating a leadership problem doesn’t mean the problem has vanished. Far from it.
Of the 91 directly elected National Assembly seats the PPP secured in 2008, 40 came from outside Sindh and south Punjab: 27 from the rest of Punjab; nine from KP; and four in Balochistan.
So even in the best-case scenario of a big bump up in south Punjab and a smaller one in Sindh, if the party is wiped out in the rest of the country, the PPP will struggle to return to power.
Add a jiyala but minus a leader — it’s difficult electoral maths.
Which is why the party is looking to Zardari: they know he probably won’t be visible or accessible come election time, but they’re hoping he’ll reach into his bag of tricks and come up with a different winning formula.