NAWAZ Sharif was ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office by a dubious Supreme Court decision on July 28, 2017. He left the country on Nov 19, 2019. Six years have passed since his participation in electoral/ parliamentary politics, and four since he was last in Pakistan.
When he left the PM Office, his party was in comfortable control of parliament, with the largest majority in the National Assembly for any government since his last one between 1997-1999. When he left the country, his party had been weakened by defections, but was still the dominant party in urban Punjab, and a close second to the PTI in the rest of the province.
On the day his brother took over the premiership on a wafer-thin margin, following Imran Khan’s conspiracy-laden ouster, his party was competitive on their home turf and could have capitalised on immediate anti-incumbent sentiment. That ship sailed soon after.
At the time of writing, in late September 2023, none of these trends hold up. The political context has changed. Very dramatically, according to most observers. In close tandem with this transformation, the social landscape has changed a fair deal as well. The PTI is dominant, the social profile of its support base has expanded, and the age make-up of the Pakistani voter continues its unrelenting march downwards.
PML-N supporters appear to feel less strongly about their party than PTI supporters do about theirs.
Last week, Gallup Pakistan shared findings of its national public opinion poll, with data on a range of political aspects, including voting intention and favourability ratings of political leaders. These provide a quantification of the anecdotal trends and news media conversations happening over the past six months. Data collection took place a month after the May 9 protests, and thus accounts for any changes in attitudes and intentions that happened in its aftermath.
The headline finding, as it has been for the last year or so, is that Imran Khan remains the most popular politician in the country. His favourability rating is holding firm at 60 per cent, around the same rate as the last version of this survey from February 2023.
It further confirms that efforts to portray him in a negative/ disruptive light through court cases and the fallout of the May 9 protests have not had any noticeable impact on how the public perceives him. A notable omission from the survey is the absence of reported favourability figures for Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, which is worth evaluating given the PPP’s continued political strength in Sindh.
A series of other confirmations from the survey are the following: PTI is the most popular party in the country; its supporters feel very strongly about the party, more so than supporters of other parties feel about theirs; and it is the only party with national political credentials, drawing support from all four provinces.
The provincial break-up of this support is worth analysing in detail. The PTI’s political hegemony in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is intact, with each survey (and every election result since 2013) showing stable and/ or increasing support. Nearly 70pc of respondents in the province report an immediate intention to vote for it. Unsurprising for close observers, but a good data point for those who thought the crackdown may have fragmented the party’s support base.
Of greater interest is its significant gains in voting intention in the province of Punjab — home to 141 out of 266 directly elected seats. Here, PTI (41pc) commands a 13-point lead over the PML-N (28pc), a gap that has widened over the preceding year. Around a year or so ago, the PML-N was polling above 30pc in the province, with the PTI in close proximity. Despite restrictions and crackdowns on PTI workers, the party’s favourability continues to translate into province-wide voting intention. This shows that party identification continues to increase and is not necessarily mediated by the on-ground presence of the PTI’s local office-bearers or politicians.
The results from the other provinces are also worth considering. Intention to vote for the PTI is the highest out of all major parties in Balochistan, which is a further indication of its national appeal. Finally, there is no rural-urban break-up given for Sindh, but the PTI is polling close to the PPP in the province. This is likely due to its support base among voters in Karachi, who account for nearly a third of the overall electorate of the province.
The analytical challenge, as with any such survey, is linking constituency-based outcomes to the results of large province-/ nation-wide surveys. Past surveys show that national voting intentions do not map on neatly to constituency results, due to large population variations across regions and provinces. It is possible for 50pc of a national sample to be in favour of one party, but that this support base is spread out unevenly across different constituencies. This has historically favoured the PML-N in past elections, whose support has been concentrated in the most populated region of central Punjab, which also has the highest number of constituencies.
Recent by-election results and survey outcomes show that this support has wavered. The voting intention gap in the province has reduced, and PML-N supporters appear to feel less strongly about their party than PTI supporters do about theirs. This carries turnout implications. PML-N voters may choose to opt out of the electoral process altogether.
In the past, the bare minimum pathway towards a simple majority for any party not named the PML-N meant accumulating seats in the three smaller provinces, and swinging south Punjab. Even this was not a guarantee of a comfortable margin in the Assembly, as the PTI learnt in 2018.
This time around, if elections are held and these reported trends hold, there is a more plausible and firm-footed path to a bigger majority; one that rests on the elbowing out of PML-N from a host of constituencies in central Punjab. Four years is a long time in politics, and, as it turns out for Nawaz Sharif, a long time to be away from Pakistan.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2023