How will a party that governed the most well-resourced province in the country for a decade, and the centre for the last five years, cope with life on the opposition benches? This remains a valid concern simply because the health of the opposition is crucial to maintaining competition that drives incumbent performance. This was true in 2011, when the PTI kicked the PML-N into fear-driven action, and it remains true as the former stands to enter office for the first time.
Editorial: The opposition’s role
Election results have made it apparent that two-party competition in the crucial battleground of Punjab is not going to end anytime soon. The hypothesised implosion of the PML-N following Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification has not taken place, at least not on some grand scale. Confrontational rhetoric adopted by a faction of the party may have cost the PML-N some voters — they polled in approximately two million less than in 2013 — but it also shored up (or, at the very least, didn’t damage) a section of their core voting base in the urban areas.
Geographically speaking, the damage was largely done in north Punjab, where the party’s entire haul amounted to zero National Assembly and two provincial assembly seats, and in the south, where it won only 13 out of 48 NA seats.
The results are not entirely unexpected, even if the scale of the swing might be. The PML-N had been losing ground in north Punjab since 2013, when it saw its winning margins on seats reduce by two per cent compared to 2008, the only region in the province where this happened for the party. In the south, the defections and the party’s conjoined failure to address the question of either serious devolution or a new province cost them seats in Seraiki-speaking areas, leaving them competitive only on seats with a sizable settler (abadkar) population.
The party has to reconcile its internal contradictions if it hopes to stay competitive in the long run.
At the same time, the numbers from July 25 are pretty comprehensive on what constitutes the party’s core. Lahore, Gujranwala, Narowal, Sialkot, Sheikhupura, Kasur and Okara were retained; Sargodha too held firm for the N-League, which came as a bit of a surprise given the strength of the opposition’s candidate roster in the district. On the other hand, Faisalabad was lost, which contrary to what some have said is more of a reversion to type than a serious swing away. To put it in perspective, the PML-N had only gained three out of 11 seats in the district back in the 2008 election even while it swept other parts of the region.
The winning margin on National Assembly seats that the PML-N won in its ‘core’ areas clocked in at 12pc, around 2pc higher than the provincial average. Of these 47 seats, 10 were tight races, where the gap was less than 5pc of votes polled, while the party enjoys a relatively comfortable buffer in the rest. It also controls, for the time being at least, most major municipal councils in this region, as evidenced by a recent meeting of PML-N mayors with Shahbaz Sharif.
This short detour through some numbers underscores another interesting comparison: If 2002 marked the purest distillation of the PML-N to its core — a paltry total of 18 seats, 15 of which were in urban central Punjab — then 2018 demonstrates that the core has expanded. The difference in circumstances aside, the last 10 years in government have given the party ample space to expand its patronage networks, improve infrastructure, and cultivate some ideational resonance with its brand of politics. The good news for them is that it reflects in the results; the bad news though is that it also lays bare its regional priorities, and ultimately how people perceived these priorities outside of central Punjab.
So the summer of 2018 leaves the PML-N with a range of existential questions. Its long-term path back to office is now built on displacing a new brand in two regions of Punjab, while holding on to its home turf. This was going to be difficult under any circumstances, but could become doubly so if the PTI delivers. Helping the new incumbent’s cause is a general air of partly manufactured, partly organic goodwill around Imran Khan’s win in public discourse.
Most television channels regurgitate the ‘let’s give him a chance’ line wholesale, which means the honeymoon period should last for a bit, leaving the PML-N with little ammo to snipe at from the opposition benches. This is particularly ironic because the PML-N has historically been the beneficiary of an understanding and a considerate media sphere, while the PPP was taken to the cleaners every evening during its time in office.
Secondly, the party also has to reconcile its internal contradictions if it hopes to stay competitive in the long run. Is it a party of confrontation, or is it a party that seeks to reuse a back door via the establishment as it has in the past? Picking one (likely through a bitter internecine brawl) will at least give it strategic coherence in the months ahead.
Third, it now finds itself in a strange position where it has nothing to sell unless the incumbent slips up massively. Contrast this with the PTI, which consistently fired away through its corruption rhetoric and then expanded to talk about governance more broadly. For better or worse, it has a brand that it can supplement further by performing in office. The PML-N, on the other hand, has nothing akin to the anti-corruption assault launched on it by the PTI, and which it once had when its closest foe was a heavily compromised PPP.
Ultimately, how the PML-N copes in opposition has less to do with the party and what it stands for. What remains far more important is an environment of competition, which, if nothing else, at least keeps pushing the needle of delivering to the electorate in the right direction.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2018