A CURIOUS thing has happened since the 2008 elections. Back then, the party believed to be mostly likely to play with the fires of provincialism was the PML-N.

The logic was simple enough: the PML-N had little support outside Punjab; the province was big enough to rule Pakistan from if the party swept the polls there; and Nawaz Sharif showed little appetite for reaching out to the smaller provinces.

The PPP, having some standing in the four provinces, though diminished from the party’s peak, was thought to be the country’s only legitimate ‘national’ party. But, on Asif Zardari’s watch, it has been the PPP which has flirted with the dangers of provincialism and ethnic politics.

In Sindh, the push back against the MQM has been cast as a stand for Sindhi nationalism — protecting the ‘sons of the soil’ and the soil itself from Mohajir interlopers.

(Of course, this being Zardari & co at work, they have managed to bungle even that crude success, the flip-flop on the local government system putting the PPP on the defensive in interior Sindh and giving rival Sindhi nationalist parties a boost.) In Punjab, the support for a Seraiki province — based on ethno-linguistic and cultural grounds, instead of administrative or historical grounds — is a coarse attempt at broadening the PPP’s voter base in the province.

Note how the PPP has avoided specifying what it means by a ‘Seraiki province’. Properly drawn, a Seraiki province would be the largest province in the country, stretching across much of Punjab and encompassing parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, too.

By talking up a Seraiki province without defining its boundaries, the PPP is seeking to pick up as many ethno-linguistic votes as it can.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PPP went the other way. By allowing the province to be renamed, the PPP elated the Pakhtuns and delivered to its ANP ally some bragging rights. The Hazaras, more aligned with the PML (Q and N), weren’t worth fighting for, so they were ignored.

Oddly enough, it’s the PML-N which has by and large eschewed provincialism.

The deal on a new NFC was possible because Punjab didn’t try and block a larger share of funds to the smaller provinces, particularly Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

By agreeing to the renaming of the NWFP, the PML-N took a hit in the Hazara region (made palatable by the 18th Amendment stripping the powers of the presidency, perhaps).

In Punjab, the PML-N, instead of waving the provincial flag and touting Punjab’s indivisibility, has very tentatively agreed to look at the issue of new provinces. (Though perhaps only because flatly rejecting new provinces may upset voters in the south of the province, the Bahawalpur region and the Seraiki belt, regions in which talk of new provinces has gained traction.)

Of course, the PML-N, being the big player in the biggest province, doesn’t need to be as aggressive in playing the provincial and ethnic card. Might works just by its existence sometimes, it doesn’t necessarily have to say much.

Which is to say the PML-N hasn’t exactly tried to court voters outside Punjab. Nawaz Sharif has stayed true to form in at least one respect: he has appeared content to find a way to Islamabad through Punjab.

And that’s precisely what has made predicting the outcome of the next election so difficult at this stage.

With the regionalisation of the electorate deepening over the past three years, the calculus for power in Islamabad has changed. No longer are the two major parties vying for outright control of parliament. Forget the ‘heavy mandate’ of a two-thirds majority, the PPP and the PML-N aren’t even realistically hoping to capture 51 per cent now.

Zardari has shown what can be done with just 35 per cent of the seats in parliament. The PML-N will likely aim for a smidgen more to gain control of parliament, the party’s willingness and ability to carry along coalition partners being untested. But neither party is building its electoral strategy on 51 per cent.

Which means regional strategies will be key to electoral success. But what is the right strategy and where?

Regions like the Baloch areas of Balochistan aren’t likely to be very problematic. The tribal system and the nationalist parties will figure out a way to be on the right side of power in Islamabad.

But what of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? With 35 directly elected National Assembly seats up for grabs, success there could be a crucial plank for any coalition in Islamabad. Which way is KP swinging, though?

Nobody seems quite sure. The ANP government is epically corrupt and has done little to fight the insurgency beyond offering robust rhetoric. But what sort of alliances will emerge from the mix of ANP, PPP, PML-N, PML-Q, JI and JUI? Speak to the experts and they are divided.

The calculus in Punjab is even more complicated. Down the GT Road, the party of the GT Road, the PML-N, has solid support.

But branch off and take one of the byroads and the PML-Q and PPP come into play.

The PPP thinks it’s being smart by playing the Seraiki card, but historically it has been an electoral non-issue. The Bahawalpur province issue has been a slightly stronger vote-getter. Then again, the PML-N’s cautious response to the talk of new provinces indicates that voter sentiment may be in flux.

While the predictions that the PML-N would nudge the electorate towards further regionalisation may have been wrong, regionalisation does appear to have grown stronger, with the PPP taking the lead instead.

And with regionalisation of the electorate growing stronger, the country’s already unpredictable and messy politics have become a little bit more unpredictable and messier.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

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