THE PTI’s victory in the Sialkot constituency PP-38 over PML-N is a significant development in all respects. This was considered a PML-N stronghold and therefore a safe seat for the party and its candidate whose family has dominated politics in the area. Central Punjab is perceived as the PML-N’s heartland and only a few months ago, the latter party had trounced the PTI in National Assembly by-elections in Daska.

In fact, the ruling PTI had lost successive by-elections reinforcing a perception that its incumbency was weighing heavy on it. However, the party’s back-to-back victories in Azad Kashmir and Sialkot have given a fillip to its political standing while denting the PML-N.

Red Zone Files: There is a sense of muted elation among the PTI high command

There are numerous reasons why the opposition parties find themselves struggling against the government but one key reason is the lack of cohesion in their anti-government narrative. The PML-N’s internal duality is a particularly acute factor that is dragging down the party in electoral contests. While the PTI has now started focusing on its projects and schemes, the PML-N is still running around in circles trying to figure out whether it wants to pursue an aggressive policy or a more prudent one. It is this confusion, or ambiguity, that has forced the PML-N to explain every defeat as a product of rigging without producing any convincing evidence to substantiate its claims.

This narrative gets diluted when confronted by inconvenient contradictions. When the PML-N wins a by-election, there is no mention of malpractice but when it loses, it cries foul. It may want to recognise that the PTI is slowly consolidating its political strength and setting itself up strongly for the general elections. This does not however mean that the tables have been turned. The PML-N remains entrenched in its Punjab stronghold and the PTI cannot be sure of the scale of its organic support in the largest province. It is also apparent that the establishment remains a central player in the system regardless of what the opposition parties may desire. The PTI’s recent electoral victories are a reminder that the fundamentals of the political chessboard that was set in the 2018 elections remains in place to a fairly large extent. This presents a unique challenge to the PTI’s rivals. They have to figure out a workable strategy to dent the PTI’s political standing before the general elections are upon them. So far there are little indications that the opposition has anything new up its sleeve.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2021

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