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A changed landscape

Updated May 20, 2018

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SO, that was unexpected. Or was it thoroughly predictable? Slow walk the man towards a humiliating exit, prod and poke him along the way, make clear the end is nigh — but allow him to run around the country and use his megaphone at will.

Of such miscalculations are crises made.

Take a look: For Nawaz, it’s not over till it’s over

What he’ll say next and where he’s going to take this is for Nawaz to reveal to the world. What’s clear is that he’s taken himself out of the electoral equation, jumped before a final push.

Sure, the core of Nawaz’s side of the party may yet stick with him — out of loyalty, because of an inability to find a way into the Shahbaz camp or because the PTI is already crowded at the top — and the voter-candidate combination still supporting Nawaz may win him a few seats.

But you can’t win an election while trying to lose it.

It’s obvious that Nawaz is off fighting a different fight and that makes it possible for the Shahbaz side of the party to do its own thing.

The other obvious thing is that Nawaz’s electoral self-immolation has changed the calculation for everyone else. Imran, Shahbaz, Zardari, the independents and the boys all now face a significantly altered electoral landscape.

Start with Shahbaz. This could prove a blessing in disguise. The best-case scenario for Shahbaz had long since passed: an early coronation at the hands of Nawaz and the elder brother already out there doing some serious campaigning for the younger brother.

The next-best thing for Shahbaz was Nawaz taking a backseat, allowing Shahbaz to do what needs to do and not acting as a serious drag on the party. Nawaz hasn’t quite done that, but he’s done something similar.

So violent has been Nawaz’s self-perpetrated exit from immediate electoral politics that no one, at least no voter, can seriously believe that Nawaz is fighting for seats or a seat at the parliamentary table come July.

It’s obvious that Nawaz is off fighting a different fight and that makes it possible for the Shahbaz side of the party to do its own thing. Showcase Punjab speed, talk up Shahbaz’s achievements, pitch the election as a choice between provincial governance records in Punjab, KP and Sindh.

It could work.

As long as Nawaz doesn’t deliberately undercut his brother and force Shahbaz into a situation where he has to clarify something Nawaz has said or defend it in public, Shahbaz can try and do what he has wanted to do for a while: lead the party into the election campaign proper.

More damaged appears to be Zardari. Whether as kingmaker or dark horse for king itself, Zardari’s prospects in the election depended on a crowded field in Punjab and Nawaz’s determination to disrupt the election.

With no organised opposition in Sindh and the possibility of a few pickups in Karachi, the PPP’s baseline of seats is more or less known. The key for Zardari was to recover a bit in Punjab from the demolition of 2013.

Nawaz trying to fight the boys through the ballot box and Imran struggling again to look like a winner was the PPP’s best chance at sneaking in some seats in three-way contests.

But a choice between Shahbaz and Imran in Punjab doesn’t leave the PPP with much room to elbow its way into the mix. Not many are going to choose the PPP in a governance-based contest in Punjab of all places.

And with Nawaz railing fiercely and loudly against the boys or locked up in jail to keep him quiet, the PPP can’t exactly try and gin up voter support on ideological, anti-establishment grounds. Especially if Zardari is visibly courting the boys.

Zardari will have to come up with something else and quick.

Turn to Imran. In self-immolating, Nawaz has obviously done Imran a huge favour. Even with the boys on his side, Imran’s indiscipline and lack of strategy meant it was hard to see the PTI coasting to victory.

Nawaz drawing a sharp contrast as a willing and dangerous foe of the boys would also have muddied the electoral waters for the PTI — if Nawaz had chosen to seriously fight the election.

But it’s not just that Nawaz has all but taken himself out of the electoral equation. The PML-N has only weeks to get behind Shahbaz as its leader in the short, sharp campaign ahead. And Nawaz has now made Shahbaz look like a fool, shown the PML-N to be in internal disarray and given N-League electables a legitimate reason to flee.

Meanwhile, Zardari’s equation has changed too — and in a way that could help Imran. Two-way contests against the PML-N should favour the PTI more than if PPP candidates and independents forced three- or four-way contests. That’s just election maths.

But the biggest boost for Imran may come from the biggest losers of Nawaz’s gamble: the independents. As long as Nawaz was in the mix, Shahbaz’s position uncertain, Imran’s strategy poor and Zardari’s approach a long shot, electables would have been drawn to the independent option.

Win the seat first and after the numbers in parliament are known, pick a party to join. And maybe rely on manoeuvring by the boys to win you something nice in government after you’ve done your bit and won a seat as an independent.

But now that Nawaz has exploded himself, independents have an incentive to rush and join the PTI, or maybe Shahbaz’s camp, lest they have to wait at the end of the queue after the election and miss out on a big ministry or prize in government.

The big winner this week: Imran. The big losers: independents. And two struggling in the middle: Shahbaz and Zardari.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2018