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As the dust settles on the NA-154 by-election in Lodhran, south Punjab, countless arguments are being made and rhetoric ramped up about what happened.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is calling the result a slight set back in the long run, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is claiming the outcome to be the ultimate vindication of the stance and narrative Nawaz Sharif has built since his disqualification.

But what exactly happened in Lodhran? How did the result come about? What does it mean for both the parties and the country as Pakistan heads into general election this year?

Right after the polls, I spoke to local party leaders and voters. Here is what I found.

What happened?

It was a shock and completely unexpected result. Neither of the parties was ready for what transpired, but the voters in the area, and in south Punjab in general, saw this coming.

For the past two years or so, the PTI has been embroiled in a serious split at the local level. And nowhere is this split and infighting more pronounced than in south Punjab.

Every union council, tehsil and district has two competing groups of the PTI.

One group is led by Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his allies, while the other one is led by Jahangir Tareen and Ishaq Khakwani.

Qureshi’s group includes the PTI old guard as well as his own political allies from the Pakistan People’s Party days. In south Punjab, these are people who have either been in the PTI from the start or were the early adopters of it.

Tareen’s group consists of those who came in right after the 2013 election. These were the famed electables who were recruited at lightning speed right after the election, under the pretence of winning much needed seats for the PTI in 2018.

Imran Khan signed off on it because he needed candidates who could deliver results next time around, and Tareen was able to rope in these personalities with promises of skipping the ticket line and jumping to the centre.

It is important to understand why Khan relies so heavily on Tareen, but that is a discussion for another time.

Since then, both groups of the party actively started sabotaging each other. In his bid to become the chosen number two, Tareen pumped in resources for his favoured people and went after Qureshi’s group.

Tareen’s social media team, as well as the official media team of the PTI, essentially focused only on what Tareen was doing in south Punjab and slowly pushed Qureshi back.

This has been going on for over two years and, at this stage, Qureshi feels he has been marginalised. Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

Take for instance the Khanewal seat. Muhammad Khan Daha is the PML-N person from there. Against him are two groups of the PTI, fighting for the same seat.

Ahmed Hiraj is backed by Tareen and, even though he joined the party only six months ago, he was a main speaker at the party’s rally in Khanewal, while Hamid Hiraj, who is backed by Qureshi and has been in the party since 2014, was not allowed to speak even after Imran Khan himself indicated that he should.

In Jahaniya, the PML-N candidate is Haji Nazeer Jutt, the Qureshi-backed contestant is Sohail Khagga, and Tareen’s person is Murtaza Maitla.

When push comes to shove and it is time to pick a candidate, Imran Khan, historically, goes with Tareen’s candidate because of the myth that his candidates can deliver the extra votes that electables bring with them. Qureshi’s candidates are more rooted in union council and tehsil politics.

What ends up happening is this: the electable does bring in his 20,000 to 35,000 voters but, at the same time, the party loses out on old voters as well as those of the other group as its leader chooses to run as an independent candidate.

This vote splitting and infighting normally leads to the PML-N winning. This is a consistent problem that the PTI must deal with in south Punjab, which got highlighted again in the NA-154 by-election.

Pir Rafiuddin, who has shifted multiple parties and still has a decent amount of pull, was promised by Tareen and Khakwani that if the opportunity arose, he would get a shot at the NA seat. That was the commitment he was working under.

But when the time came, Tareen chose his own son over Rafiuddin and, at that point, the pir decided to go his own way, costing the PTI the votes they were hoping to rely on.

Profile: Jahangir Tareen — one of Pakistan's wealthiest lawmakers

Add to that a very local issue that most people in rest of the country are not aware of: sugar cane buying.

In this whole region, from Lodhran to Bahawalpur, there are two massive sugar mills: Ashraf Sugar in Bahawalpur and Tareen’s sugar mills.

Over a period, the two have systematically built a monopoly on buying sugar cane during the crushing season. They hold off buying till the crop is about to go bad so that they can buy it at bottom prices.

They have been involved in this practice for years and local farmers who depend on the crops for livelihood have been wronged enough to know what they are doing. This resentment also played a part in this specific instance.

But this all builds up to a larger problem that the PTI is facing in south Punjab as well as in most parts of the country. The party is split down the middle and Imran Khan has no clue what to do about it.

The larger problem

As I explained earlier, the PTI is split badly. Let’s take the example of what will probably pan out in Khanewal during the general election.

Mohammad Khan Daha will have his PML-N ticket and for the PTI, it will be either Ahmed Hiraj of the Tareen group or Hamid Hiraj of the Qureshi group.

In any case, the one who will not get the ticket, from the looks of it, is Ahmed’s brother, Hamid Hiraj. He will run independently.

Both brothers will battle each other, while Daha will sit pretty and win his own voters plus the PML-N voters, and grab the seat.

Now repeat exactly this all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. That is how and why the PTI will end up losing again to the PML-N in 2018.

Analysis: Will early elections benefit PTI?

The PTI lacks two things at this stage that the NA-154 result made amply clear. Firstly, they lack discipline and, secondly, they lack the understanding of local politics.

National rhetoric works better in cities; it does not work as well in rural or peri-urban areas, where the voters are focused on localised issues.

They do not obsessively watch TV or follow social media. For them, voting is a choice between who gets things done, what caste they are, what have they done lately, and what they will do in the future.

With regards to party discipline, many fail to understand that it is something that comes from the top. If the party leader is not willing to double down on it, it cannot be expected that everyone else will follow through.

Imran Khan must choose between Tareen and Qureshi before the general election. Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, does not have such problems because his party does not have factions at this level.

The PML-N policy is very clear: the tanzim comes down hard on dissenters and moves swiftly to pick favourites in any region.

The PTI lacks that and Imran Khan needs to realise that for this party to be competitive, he will need to make these tough choices.

Local politics > national rhetoric

While the PML-N is calling the result a vindication of the national narrative they have created since Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, this is about local politics.

In the aftermath of the loss, multiple PTI supporters and other anti-PML-N people bashed the voters for making a bad choice and selling out.

The fact is that this is deeply disrespectful towards these voters and democracy in general. The voters make their choices based on localised information and what is best for them.

To berate them and expect them to follow through on the national narrative is deeply delusional. Voters do not need sermons; they need action. And the PTI should be worried sick because the in-fighting and the pontification is not really helping their cause in an election year.

The reason the PML-N can hold on to its voters is because they have spent years building local voter profiles across Punjab and have figured out that what works in Lahore will not work in Bahawalpur.

Their narrative and approach change based on the region. In 2012/2013, they set up structures to have detailed in-house voter analysis to see what the priorities list was and what worked where.

The PTI has never gone down that route. That is why when it comes down to the numbers game, the PML-N has an edge because it invested in building up systems before anyone else did.

So, when we look back at NA-154, the lessons are obvious. Local politics is important, no matter what the national rhetoric is.

The result should worry the PTI.