FORMER prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif has reason to revel in the PML-N’s victory over arch-rival PTI in Lodhran, the last by-poll before the next general election.

The seat was vacated by Imran Khan’s ace aide Jahangir Tareen on his disqualification. An ex-prime minister who has been persistent in demanding the reasons for his ouster can justifiably see this as a popular verdict: evidently, the people are still willing to vote for Mian Sahib’s candidates, and in big numbers.

It was a huge defeat for the PTI, that many believed was at the peak of its popularity. Some experts are now debating how the familiar Sharif bandwagon can be stopped from sweeping the home province again in the next general election — the Lodhran result has certainly left the PTI with a lot of worries.

There is no doubt that the PTI candidate, the young Ali Tareen, got a huge number of votes in the NA-154 contest, but already senior PTI leaders have acknowledged that complacency was one of the factors which denied them a win.

Read: Lodhran's message for PTI

This shows that the PTI, like other formidable opponents of the PML-N in the past, has failed to realise just how good the Sharif machinery can be on polling day. There were instances in the past where the PML-N ran a deceptive low-key pre-poll campaign, catching the competitors by surprise.

In Lodhran on Monday, it was an ambush that, too, had been quietly prepared, even as the PTI went around receiving congratulations over the ‘victory’ it was anticipating. The PML-N let the PTI form this impression, working quietly with the help of local actors firmly behind PML-N candidate Syed Iqbal Shah; there was no rowdy display of support. They were apparently unaffected by the erroneous tales that projected NA-154 as a Tareen constituency. The fact is that Jahangir Tareen first contested this seat in 2013. He lost then, securing the seat in a by-election later. This hardly made it a hereditary safe seat for his son Ali Tareen and did not justify the confidence of those predicting a PTI walkover.

The overconfidence has dealt the PTI a blow which can have serious consequences not just in southern Punjab but all over the province — in fact across the country. Mr Tareen has long been seen as Imran Khan’s number two man. He remained a stalwart with influence despite the ban on his contesting the polls. In the aftermath of the Tareen failure to retain this seat, severe doubt has been cast on the worth of Mr Khan’s lieutenants. Can Mr Khan take on the might of the Sharif juggernaut on his own? This is a sign that, short of some divine help, the PTI chief is going to have a very tough time living up to his billing as the alternative.

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2018

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