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End of round one

Updated June 10, 2018


AND they’re finally — finally — off. Not quite charging out of the gates, more stumbling around and bumping into each other and colliding. No thoroughbreds these.

No heroes here.

But it’s still been interesting. Dissolution was the first big test. Would the N-League crumble? The thinking had been straightforward: nobody likes to quit ahead of time, but once the assemblies were dissolved, the cracks would manifest themselves.

Nawaz off doing his own, damaging thing; Shah­baz flailing around; the N-League seemingly rudderless — it was set up nicely for a quick implosion.

Didn’t happen.

Overall, the recent pattern held — a steady trickle out of the PML-N; few, if any, looking for a path into the party as a first option — and there was no radical party swapping, allegiance shifting.

Nawaz off doing his own, damaging things; Shahbaz flailing around; the N-League seemingly rudderless — it was set up nicely for a quick implosion.

The PTI’s self-inflicted travails and already being packed to the gills with potential candidates may have been part of the reason. The PPP taking itself out of contention most everywhere other than Sindh also probably helped.

But the story may have been about the N-League itself.

Nawaz turning up the volume to a full 10 had the potential to blow up all previous electoral calculations. The approach didn’t really stand to win the PML-N much electoral ground — it’s not really a subject that moves the needle positively — but it could have hurt.

It hasn’t really.

The steady turnout at Nawaz’s rallies and political intelligence from the field have suggested that while nobody was thrilled by Nawaz’s hard turn, the unhinged reaction to him muddied matters.

It makes a kind of sense. If you’re already sympathetic to a chap and suddenly everyone piles on against him, painting him as the devil incarnate and worse, you may start to wonder what’s really going on.

The primary vehicles used to try and pulverise Nawaz — TV and the PTI/PPP — also had their drawbacks. TV in particular is off every other day or so, chasing a new rabbit, routinely denouncing in the wildest, obscene terms even minor transgressions.

After a while, that becomes easier to shrug off.

An apparent truce of sorts within the PML-N probably helped too. You do your thing, we’ll do ours — that’s pretty much the division of labour now apparent in the PML-N. Nawaz isn’t exactly talking up Shahbaz, but neither are Shahbaz and co tying themselves in knots trying to explain Nawaz.

The end of the assemblies may have played a part. The rest of the PML-N has been freed of awkward official interactions and from saying potentially contradictory stuff that confuses everyone and angers many.

The other part may have been the time it takes to re-establish a wonky truce in a big political family under the most enormous of strains, from within and outside.

Interesting too are the electoral strategies that are becoming apparent. The PTI seems to be focused on the NA, distributing more PA tickets to the fresh faces, the inexperienced and those more closely resembling the change mantra.

The chosen focus of the PTI could have consequences. It has allowed the PML-N, particularly Shahbaz, to hang on to a large chunk of the party’s MPAs in Punjab. Typically, for every MNA seat, there are two MPAs.

Known as wings, MPA candidates can help boost the turnout and vote count for NA party ticketholders or chip away at the base of a strong National Assembly opponent. A strong N-League roster of provincial candidates in a tough electoral climate could prove to be a winning edge.

Conversely, the PTI’s seeming focus on the NA may allow the party to benefit from split votes. Say, you’re an N-League or independent voter in Punjab who’s not really inclined to see the N-League sweep to power at two levels again.

But you don’t want to abandon your party or perhaps as an independent voter, you don’t want to be seen aligning yourself with forces that you have doubts about.

So, you decide to split your vote: one party at the NA level, another at the PA level. A weak PTI field at the provincial tier versus a strong N-League field could help sort out your dilemma. Return the N-League to power in Punjab, give the PTI a shot at the centre.

The NA as the focus may also make sense for the PTI for another reason. The PTI’s sloppiness and silliness on full and embarrassing display in recent days cannot have been reassuring to anyone.

The sloppiness and silliness has reaffirmed that the party can only be trusted to do a few things if it is to be expected to do anything well. That’s just the nature of the PTI. There’s no point fighting it or trying to fix it at this stage.

So if the target has to be narrow, may as well make it for the biggest prize — the National Assembly.

The end of the assemblies has also helped partially answer two other questions. The PPP was nowhere outside Sindh in the last election and looks set to stay nowhere outside Sindh in this election.

The MQM infighting may help the PPP in Karachi, but in the other provinces a PPP ticket isn’t exactly being sought after. Diminished too are the prospects of the independents. Their luck depended on the N-League imploding and the PTI struggling.

Only one of those things has happened so far.

Round one, the immediate aftermath of dissolution, is over. Round two will be after Eid. Remember, there are no heroes here.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2018