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Photo illustration by Alia Chughtai

Love triangles are a favorite plot of TV soaps. They provide perfect ingredients for constructing a complex web of relations that are then used by crafty playwrights to pitch exciting events on. The resulting work keeps its audience engaged, thrilled and thoroughly consumed. Politics in Punjab is scripted in similar fashion to meet similar objectives. The favorite theme for this type of entertainment, namely politics, is its hate triangle. The soap based on the plot - three parties hating each other - went on air four years ago. With figures on top of all the rating charts since then, it has its audience permanently glued to the screens and shows no signs of fatigue.

Punjab was a straight love at first sight kind of person in 1970. Like the rest of the country it had a crush on ZA Bhutto and their relationship faced no challenge. Election results were read as PPP and ‘others’. The latter however were lumped together in 1988 and given names like IJI and PML-N. Their electoral achievements helped them evolve a distinct political identity. The politics in Punjab now became a two way affair – Bhutto and the anti-Bhutto. Another martial law introduced another player. It became a tripartite affair in 2002 that assumed clearer form in the next elections.

Three parties in Punjab vied with each other in 2008 and ended up having a nearly equal share in votes. PPP got 28.6 per cent of the polled votes, PML-N just half a per cent more (29.0 per cent) and the so-called Q League which officially was named Pakistan Muslim League, surpassed its name sake rival by two decimals of a per cent standing at 29.2 per cent. If you round off these figures all stand at 29 per cent or 6 million votes in real numbers. A substantial 11.6 per cent of the vote went to independents that are always ready to add spice whenever one apprehends that it is becoming too bland and predictable.

Electors seldom give clear verdicts anywhere in the world anymore. Call it ideological confusion or complexity of competing vested interests or maturity of the electorate; most battles are being fought in the middle though they may exhibit a marginal lean towards the left or the right. Punjab’s split mandate is thus no surprise. But two of its distinct aspects have made it more interesting.

One, the almost same number of vote translated into very different number of seats for each of the three parties. PML-N’s 6 million votes gave it 64 seats while the other Muslim League with a few thousand more votes in total ended up with just 27 and PPP with close to hundred thousand less votes than PML-N managed 43 seats. This means that securing votes in Punjab is one thing and having these translated into seats, the real power, is another.

Two, Musharraf’s Muslim League disappeared into thin air as soon as his plane took off from the country. That we still hear the name of that party is because it is legally impossible to change your party after being elected on another’s ticket. It’s dead yet the burial cannot be announced before the schedule for the next elections is made public. The party is over but what about those 29 per cent of votes it had polled in 2008. They cannot disappear. They will be very much there in the polling station queues come next elections. So who will they vote for?

If you add 11.6 per cent of the vote secured by independents to that of the now defunct king’s party, it becomes a whopping 41 per cent of Punjab’s polled vote. This is a very valuable vote bank and that too without a guard. Since its founder is an absconder, no one can sell or auction it. It is up for loot and the ruthless, the mean and the cunning will take all. So the anticipation of this gold rush of sorts is giving the soap all of its exciting twists and turns and will continue to do so till the next election. A flyover in the city gives some a high, while free laptops thrill others and then a whole new province or provinces agitates a whole lot more.

Will the triangle finally collapse into a linear one-on-one fight in coming elections? If yes then the success depends on who manages to recover how much from the remains of the doomed third party. Or will ‘the big brother’ be able to introduce a new player and legitimize its claim over this booty and thus keep the triangle in tact? If yes, the situation remains as precarious as in the earlier scenario. Three way fights can be highly unpredictable with breathtakingly close competition and a dash of adrenaline will definitely be helpful when the numbers crunch.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.