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THE verdict against Mian Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz has stirred a debate about in what way it will affect the voters on July 25.

The supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, and also some ‘neutral’ observers, have predicted that this will lead to a silent boycott by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) voters of the election to be held after less than three weeks.

Also read: What next for PML-N?

However, there is much weight in the argument which says that the verdict could provide a kind of an incentive to the Sharif voters to turn up at polling stations in good numbers. And not just out of sympathy for the ‘victims of a harsh court verdict’.

The Shahbaz dilemma

In serious discussions on politics, much importance continues to be attached to the sympathy that an event can generate for a politician or a party and how this wave can result in a healthy harvest of votes.

Take a look: 'People will give the real verdict on July 25,' says Shahbaz minutes after Avenfield judgement

One immediate response to Friday’s verdict envisages Mr Sharif and Ms Maryam riding atop a decorated truck, moving through crowded Lahore streets, a la Benazir Bhutto in 1986. Perhaps this is what the plan is now that a date has been given for return to Pakistan by Mr Sharif and Ms Maryam.

The best bet for the PML-N perhaps will be not to depend on sympathy vote and contest election on the basis of its performance

That is a show that the PML-N cannot do without right now but remember the Sharifs already have a well-entrenched parallel in Shahbaz Sharif engaging the establishment on his party’s behalf. A shift towards a more adventurous course could cause gaping holes in the tier where PML-N candidates are now seeking votes from the people.

The party has had its problems coming up with nominees in the country, suffering the most telling blows in parts of Punjab where the people it chose for the election races returned the party tickets.

Any inkling that the Sharifs now want to pursue a more drastic line could lead to more desertions, adding to the impression desperately desired by some PML-N detractors: that the party is not ready to abide by the principles followed to select the rulers in Pakistan and was thus unlikely to be allowed to come to power.

That will jeopardise the entire edifice Shahbaz Sharif has painstakingly been building upon, curbing his own tendencies to throw a tantrum here and lobbing a set of microphones there.

Since the verdict is not exactly a bolt from the blue for the PML-N, it can be assumed that the seasoned politicians running its affairs saw this through.

They must have anticipated the crossroads where the Sharifs find themselves now and must have decided that the party would persevere with the Shahbaz model in the event of a verdict which they must have seen coming.

Otherwise there was absolutely no use of first taking this reconciliatory path — with the obvious approval of Nawaz Sharif — just like it is very obvious that Mian Sahib and Ms Maryam must pack bags for return to Pakistan as early as possible to mark the completion of a campaign which they knew all along will end like this.

The time for ‘hiding behind’ Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, if there was ever a desire to do that, was then when Mr Sharif and Ms Maryam chose to come back to Pakistan to appear befovre the accountability court.

Also read: Nawaz, Maryam will return to Pakistan on Friday to appeal against court verdict

It was an act of resistance, of defiance, which would all be brought to nothing if this resistance is not crowned by a return to homeland now that the verdict has been passed. It is another thing though that the resistance for the time being will have to co-exist with the strain forwarded by Shahbaz Sharif — just like before the verdict.

Beginning of sympathy

The argument which counters the pro-sympathy group in the PML-N is by no means weak. It says mixing too much resistance in the party’s could create more problems for Shahbaz Sharif who is trying to promote the party as a still viable option.

The counter-theory says that this sympathy concept is too old for a country that, despite its problems of interrupted democracy, has undergone a variety of general elections over the last three or four decades.

If there is a prime example of the sympathy votes for a party, it has to be found in the 1979 local government polls held under the Zia government. It was an election fought on a non-party basis which nonetheless returned as victors a huge number of ‘Awam Dost’ candidates. These were in reality the PPP’s men (and occasionally women) disguised in clothing acceptable to the regime.

Soon enough a major chunk of the Awam Dost bloc was co-opted by Gen Zia’s schemes. The dictator helped the world to rediscover that a political aspirant having been given a taste of power must sympathise with himself and his own lot over and above his feeling for his party or ideology.

By the time Benazir Bhutto was fighting her first general election in 1988, considerable work had taken place, including that undertaken by state actors, to ensure that she is unable to take undue advantage of any sympathy linked to her father’s overthrow and eventual extermination through a judicial murder.

Yet it can be said on the basis of themes and issues used during the election campaign in the years 1988-2002 that the so-called sympathy factor did exist even if it was weakening. For a large number of people in those times, maybe the deciding factor was whether such and such candidate deserved to be on the throne on the basis of the wrongs that person had been subjected to — instead of voters choosing a candidate due to his or her abilities to solve the people’s problems.

This was perhaps one of the reasons the election of a party, or more precisely a person, to power was considered an end in itself. A party which thought it was the chosen one to rule was often found to be resting on its illusionary laurels. More directly put, the PPP suffered for far too long under the impression that it deserved to be in power more because of the hardships the Bhutto family was put through rather than on the basis of its ability to govern.

All this while the world was fast changing. A gust of consumer activity and new experiments with communications, all these intense awareness campaigns by NGOs and the media, were set to bring change in voter behaviour.

End of sympathy

Not least the experience of voting over many elections was also having its impact. For example someone born in the early 1960s had had the opportunity to vote in no less than six general polls by 2008, discounting other elections, such as by-polls or the ones held to pick local governments.

All these factors combined to convince more and more voters in Pakistan to recognise their own powers to elect someone who serves their interests over and above having sympathy for a suffering politician – and the process is ongoing, spreading to newer areas each election. This was most evident when no great national-level sympathy wave in favour of the PPP materialised following the tragic summary removal of Ms Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

There is a general feeling that Nawaz Sharif’s party is inherently less equipped to elicit sympathy out of people. It works more salesman-like, offering its merchandise as the best deal to the customers, getting upset when pressed for greater variety and better quality.

Thus, from the point of view of the old timers still advising the Sharifs to avoid confrontation, the best bet for the PML-N for the time being would be to press on with its plea for votes on the basis of performance and try and see how the popular power secured by this strategy can be channelled to rescue Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Bibi out of this tough situation.

It needs to ask itself does it need to risk changing its tactics since, according to news reports, its development refrain is finding a good receptive audience.

Tough as this question may be, the party will give up on the Shahbaz formula only as the last option.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2018