THE outcome of the by-polls in Punjab on Tuesday may not be a foreteller of the more complex, approaching general election. It does, however, offer considerable food for thought. Up for grabs were six provincial and two National Assembly seats of which the PML-N has won all but one Punjab Assembly seat. In actual numbers, the party has gained one seat — in a Sahiwal National Assembly constituency that returned a PPP candidate in 2008. In yet another example of how fickle Pakistani politics can be, the same candidate contested the by-poll under the PML-N banner. He had been unseated by a court order and as he later renounced his dual nationality to qualify, he thought it wise to sever ties with the PPP and crossed over to the opposition party. This was interpreted by many as a sign of the falling PPP graph in central Punjab, and indeed it is something that would require serious effort to correct.
Tuesday’s fight also provided some basis for comparison between the PML-N and its new opponent PTI. Even though the Sharifs’ man won, the PTI nominee, a man with a powerful biradari and a tradition of good showings at the polls, did remarkably well. Given that the PTI was the only party in the by-polls not in government, the party now has some evidence to back its claim as a real contender. Without the Punjab government’s might standing in its way, the PTI could well have won the seat. But then the point to ponder is, how many such ‘electables’ does it have in its fold to truly challenge others? Among these challengers the by-polls reconfirm the strength of the PML-N. It will take some doing by the PTI as well as PPP and PML-Q to defeat the Sharif brothers and the team they are building up for the general election.