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One election robbed the vote bank of one major political party and the next looted that of the other. By the third, however, both had gotten an opportunity to pick up the pieces. The comparison of voting trends in the past three elections (1997, 2002, 2008) offer an interesting peep into how the electorate in our country is awakening to elections, democracy and politics.

The average jiyala was dejected and disappointed by its party when President Leghari made the always dwindling Sword of Damocles, aka Clause 58-2B, fall on the government in 1996. For once PPP wasn’t a martyr, it was a victim - of its on deeds. Its own President dismissed the government after the Prime Minister’s brother was killed by law enforcers of her own government. The party’s vote bank shrank phenomenally in 1997. Compared with its 1993 vote, PPP lost half of its vote bank in Punjab, Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and a quarter in Sindh. Its tally of votes went tumbling down from a towering 7.6 to a humble 4.2 million.

Where did those annoyed 3.4 million piplias go? Some actually may have stayed back home as the overall turnout in 1997 declined by a million too. But all of them certainly did not boycott and instead turned to other parties and candidates. PML-N, independents and smaller parties deposited close to a million new votes each to their accounts. So the voters changed their loyalties though the myth holds that come what may the PPP voter would never stamp a symbol but the arrow.

Tables turned on PML-N in next elections. The party was in dire straits in 2002 with its cadre dispersed and leaders either co-opted or in jails, facing mostly corruption charges. Sharifs themselves were exiled to Saudi Arabia and kept incommunicado with the remaining party office bearers. Moreover, the Sharifs were now fallen idols, seen as cowardly mortals who could not stand up to the challenge and ditched their own party. The PML-N vote bank nose dived from a staggering 8.8 million in 1997 to a miserable 3.4 million. It lost 57 per cent of its 1997 vote in Punjab and the party’s 1.4 million votes in the other three provinces came crashing to 0.3 million. In terms of seats it was even worse. But despite the deadly blow dealt to the party by General Musharraf, that it managed to secure these many votes belies the myth that PML-N was a toy in the hands of the establishment with no loyal supporters. It might have been so when it was founded but PML-N did carve out its niche and now has a following in central Punjab.

But loyalty was in short supply in 2002. Where did the 5.4 million voters that PML-N lost go? PPP did improve its tally but it perhaps could not benefit from the decimation of its arch rival as its vote failed to surpass the party's 1993 tally. It seems that PPP only won back its old supporters and those who left PML-N preferred to support mainly the King’s parties, PML-Q and MMA as these were the two surprises of the 2002 election results. So, did the PML-N leaders turn lota or did its voters? That’s the chicken or the egg first kind of riddle.

So in two consecutive elections a big chunk of erstwhile loyal party voters, from both the ends of the spectrum, savored infidelity and this perhaps wasn’t an unpleasant experience for them. The phenomenon of party loyalty lost its hold and became a secondary factor in electoral politics somewhere in mid-1990s. My hypothesis based on the above facts is that presently close to half of the electorate in our country is as yet predisposed in terms of who it will vote for including all the PPP, PML-N, MQM, JUI and ANP. But around half now have the decision pending till the elections are announced. That alone is a lot of voters by any standard and it makes the coming elections an open ended game.

But if these voters do not tow the party lines, how do they decide who to vote for?

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.