I was hired as a researcher (I am not a party member) to be part of the team that drafted the final version of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) manifesto before the 2018 general elections.
Many bright individuals assisted by brighter senior PML-N leaders gave the document the final shape.
Certainly, it was a tough race against time to produce a coherent and comprehensive manifesto that presented the party’s performance during its 2013-2018 tenure and promises for 2018-2023.
For my part, I worked diligently to quickly complete the chapters assigned to me and dedicated my spare time to discuss and understand what other team members and, most importantly, PML-N leaders, thought about the party’s narrative, campaign strategy and its electoral prospects.
It was widely thought that the pre-poll drive to subdue the PML-N could well work in the party's favour and that the disillusioned party voters would come out in large numbers on July 25.
It was felt that, somehow, the narrative of victimisation could supplement the narrative of delivering development and infrastructure projects in Punjab and that both the narratives would be presented simultaneously to woo voters.
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It was also expected by some that there could be no manipulation possible on election day, that the PML-N would be able to secure Punjab and may also have a shot at the federal level in a possible coalition government.
This was my assessment around the end of June and the start of July.
It will be unfair to say that the PML-N leaders were unaware of the situation on the ground, where some candidates had started returning party tickets and the divergence between Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif’s version of the party’s narrative was creating more problems.
Both approaches had their limitations and appeal among voters. Even eloquent party leaders were having a tough time reconciling the two narratives on primetime TV talk shows.
Commentators and observers were reading the situation in terms of a rift between the Sharif brothers.
Of two minds
On July 5, when the PML-N unveiled its manifesto, it was the time to highlight the party’s performance and promises. This was Shahbaz’s moment.
However, the verdict in the Avenfield reference came the very next day and jail time was announced for Nawaz, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law retired Captain Safdar.
The new circumstances now clearly dictated that the slogan Vote Ko Izzat Do had to be adopted and Khidmat Ko Vote Do could just well be a sideshow.
At this point, it was foreseen that the PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif would put his foot down, unify disparate party camps by bringing clarity in the PML-N’s narrative and fill in the shoes of star campaigner Nawaz Sharif.
However, the younger Sharif did not adapt to the new circumstances and was possibly still hopeful that he could rely on the khidmat narrative.
With the Avenfield verdict announced on July 6, Maryam and Nawaz declared their return to Pakistan on July 13 in order to surrender before the National Accountability Bureau and file an appeal within 10 days.
The party had already been battered by targeted political victimisation and Nawaz’s return provided an opportune turning point to the new PML-N president to make the elder brother a cult hero and capitalise on it.
Instead, Shahbaz further disillusioned his party’s charged workers on July 13 — the day the Sharifs returned — by making a dreary show of power in Lahore and remained fixated on July 25. Further, the massive suicide blast in Mastung diverted attention away from Nawaz’s return.
Just as Shahbaz’s moment to highlight his khidmat was overshadowed by the Avenfield verdict, Nawaz's return was overshadowed by his brother’s miscalculation and the Mastung blast.
Essentially, opportunities came and passed, but the PML-N failed to shine on either of its strong suits.
Writing on the wall
On the day of the election, I volunteered for the Anti-Rigging System under Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, a dedicated team constantly in touch with party candidates for coordination and legal aid.
I spoke to candidates from Lodhran and Vehari. When polling time finished and counting of votes began, candidates reported that their polling agents were evicted from polling stations and results were being issued only on katchi parchi and not on the official Form-45.
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A pattern began to emerge across Punjab and elsewhere. Initial results poured in, followed by delays.
Later, evidence of irregularities also came in. My first impression was that the infamous khalai makhlooq was behind it once again.
But then I thought: it was already too late. And that Shahbaz just might be thinking exactly the same. The tide had turned long ago.
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