IT is commonly said that the road to Islamabad passes through Punjab, with its 140-plus seats. But for a Punjab-based party such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the road to Islamabad passes through the region popularly known as South Punjab.

The League, which is also known as the GT Road Party due to its dominance of Central Punjab, has its core support in this area. In 2008, the party got around 50 seats from here despite the fact that the Sharif brothers had returned from exile just shortly before the election. But in South Punjab, (which has been divided into West and South Punjab) the party managed to get only 12. (The tables listing South and West Punjab indicate how the province has been divided for this article.)

Read: Bilawal promises south Punjab province

In fact the PML-N has, apart from 2002, always won a majority of the seats from Upper and Central Punjab combined. Whether it was thrown out of power in Islamabad or it was being helped to reach Islamabad, the party managed to do well in Upper/Central Punjab though this did not hold true for 2002 when the party was virtually decimated. However, that was due to “extensive engineering” in the words of Umair Javed, a columnist for Dawn.

But does the party sprint all the way to Islamabad only when the party manages to dominate West and South Punjab? This was the case in 1990, 1997 and 2013 when it formed the government in the Centre.

In other words, it is when the PML-N manages to win a majority of the seats in South and West Punjab as well as its own stronghold that it forms the government in Islamabad. This stands true for most of the 1990s as well as the post-2008 era.

In 1990, for example, the PML-N or rather the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) had won 26 seats from this region, a number which was reduced to 12 in the next election, when the PPP replaced the PML-N in Islamabad. In 1997, this number went up again, as it did in 2013.

This time around the PML-N is seen to face an uphill task.

Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified from the office of prime minister, his party has been denied an even playing field, his party members allege they are being bullied into switching sides though few 2013 election winners have switched sides or abandoned the party in Central Punjab. “The PML-N’s core group has seen only two defections — Nisar Ali Khan and Zaeem Qadri. Beyond the core group also, in Central Punjab, very few have abandoned the party; only in places such as Narowal or Faisalabad where someone’s constituency disappeared, making his chances of getting a ticket from the party slim or if someone was denied a ticket. Other than that the only place where the PML-N faced a problem was in Sargodha where the Khatam-i-Nubuwat issue cost the party support,” says Mudassir Rizvi, who works with Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen).

But it appears that in the South of the province, greater changes have taken place — with or without the help of the khalai makhlooq. Earlier in the year, a few of PML-N’s sitting members announced parting with the party for the creation of a province of South Punjab. Later, others such as the winners of the 2013 election from Jhang and from Multan also quit the party at various points. Similarly, those who had been awarded the party ticket from Rajanpur refused it at the last moment, leaving the party with no time to choose new candidates.

Rizvi does not see this as unusual.

“South Punjab has always swung from party to party. In 2002, it was dominated by PML-Q; in 2008, the PPP did well here and in 2013, the region was dominated by N.”

Take for instance, D.G. Khan, where PML-N had won all the three seats last time, but Awais Leghari is the only winner among them who still holds a PML-N ticket. One 2013 winner is contesting on an independent symbol of balti (pail, not jeep) while Shahbaz Sharif himself is contesting from the district for the party.

Multan is another district where the PML-N had done rather well in 2013. Despite the heavyweights in the PPP and the PTI, the party had won four of the six seats. This time, however, two of the winners — Dewan Ashiq Bokhari and Sikandar Bosan — are contesting as independent candidates. The other two, Abdul Dogar and Javed Ali Shah, as well as a runner-up are still holding the PML-N flag in the district.

However, this is not to say that the PML-N has been completely decimated in the South. Far from it, it has been able to retain some of its winning candidates from the 2013 election. This is true of Multan and elsewhere.

Take Rahimyar Khan. Apart from Khusro Bakhtiyar, who had in any case joined the PML-N after winning the 2013 election, the other three winners of 2013 are still contesting on a PML-N ticket. Back then two seats had been won by the PPP also.

Nusrat Javed, who has followed elections in Pakistan for decades, predicts that the PML-N will not witness a complete defeat in the region. “There are areas where settlers are in a strong position and will vote for PML-N. These include Bhawalnagar and Rahimyar Khan.”

July 25 is not far away. It will soon be clear if the South will once again determine whether or not the PML-N makes it to Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2018