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The last lap

July 20, 2018

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THE election is just a few days away. People have already decided who they are going to vote for. Analysts are trying to figure out who is going to win the contest. To a large extent, their estimates are based on what they have seen during the election campaign, the past records of parties offering another very useful source to base their evaluations on.

It’s been a lopsided campaign. The others have not even come close to matching the speed and consistency of the Kaptaan. His run has been relentless, and while there are perhaps areas he could not physically reach out to despite a desire to go there, he can be satisfied with what he has done.

Imran Khan’s meetings have been well attended, generally, bar maybe one or two occasions where the crowd was rather thin. His speeches have been, as expected, caustic, a few sentences earning him a call from the Election Commission to explain his position.

Surprisingly, to many, after Imran Khan, it is Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who has run a campaign in this build-up to election that is worth the name. His visit to interior Sindh was always on the cards but his tour of Punjab (and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) against great odds has been noticed, even if it is not going to get the PPP enough votes where it can be considered a threat to domination of the PML-N and PTI in the province.

The PPP has generated more positive vibes through Bilawal in the KP and Punjab poll campaigns than it has in the last five years overall.

That was one deterrent the experts pointed to — the lack of PPP votes in Punjab. It was thought that there was not enough potential in the biggest province for BBZ to waste his precious pre-poll time here, that too in the face of the security threat that is still there for some parties and their leaders.

It was a tough trail towards the unknown — nobody having any idea where it would lead the party in its quest to re-establish itself. On the way, BBZ was bound to face challenges, the most serious of them posed by an almost complete erosion of PPP cadres in parts of Punjab. Also, the PPP alleged that its chairman’s caravan was unfairly stopped at a couple of places — this being one instance among many that have been cited by those who describe the situation as far from being a level playing field.

BBZ’s run in Punjab was far from ideal. Many would say that he was desperately needed in Sindh, from where reports suggest that the PPP may be up against problems this time because of an alliance between the Grand Democratic Alliance and PTI. However, provided that the young PPP leader has the stamina to carry on, he might be on to something here. A small spark to hang on to. A glimmer of hope.

For others, the campaign may end in a few days from now. For BBZ, it has to continue well beyond that, until other general elections beckon. There is, of course, an element of risk here, but that is a choice perhaps the PPP leadership has already made. Now the party needs to find ways in which BBZ can maintain his presence in Punjab, building on material the two big parties, the PML-N and PTI, cannot somehow accommodate in their schemes. He should do it and then see what happens a few years down the road and not be too disappointed by the vote tally on July 25.

Many in Punjab have consigned the PPP to the dustbin of history. Some have written it off many times over. There is no shortage of people out to ridicule the party as an unwanted item from the past, the more charitable holding on to memories of its founder for antique value.

But then, it has to be said that during the tour of BBZ to Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, his party has generated more positive vibes through him than it has in the last five years put together. It is a tiny light but light still with the promise to break the long spell of pitch darkness — so long as BBZ can control his urge to tip father dear as the next prime minister.

That task should be left to the main contenders. To Imran Khan who seemingly believes that he will form a government on his own after the July 25 election. To Shahbaz Sharif who is at best aiming for a PML-N-led coalition government, and at worst fighting for survival of the Sharif brand. The realities that the PML-N is faced with have led the party to undertake a very strange poll campaign.

In Lahore, as in Punjab overall, this is dull even by PML-N standards. At times, the party appears to be caught between wanting to canvass vigorously and the belief that it stands no chance of winning this contest in Punjab against the PTI which is out to overwhelm the proceedings with its very loud and boisterous antics. It sometimes seems as if Shahbaz Sahib is campaigning all by himself and even he is somehow lacking the confidence that was his trademark when he was in power. The other senior leaders of the PML-N are there in the picture, some more active than the others but the overall picture is not one that fits a party which has so dominated Punjab politics over the last many years.

Someone has likened election 2018 to the general poll held in 2002 when the PML-N was in a quandary but still managed to win many seats in Lahore, the most eagerly contested city which formed the basis of the PTI movement against rigging after the 2013 election. The difference between 2002 and 2018 is the PTI challenge now as opposed to the rather meek PML- Q-PPP opposition then.

The feeling amongst everyone is that the PML-N voters will come out in large numbers to the surprise of all. This is an assertion based on experience but at the same time the PML-N leadership has to ensure that its own cadres do not fall prey to the impression.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2018