LAHORE: Confident, buoyant, ready to take on all comers: the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz in Punjab is a party unrecognisable from a year ago.
From the rediscovered appetite of Nawaz Sharif for the hard slog of campaigning to comfortably defending seats in the recent by-elections, the PML-N is flexing its electoral muscles in the party’s strongholds in north and central Punjab, and even looking to make gains in south Punjab.
“We had become complacent. Lahore was a wake-up call and ever since Gujranwala we’ve been hard at work,” said Khwaja Asif, a senior PML-N leader, referring to the historic Oct 2011 Lahore rally of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Dec 31, 2011, PML-N rally that sought to rally shell-shocked party supporters.
The N-Leaguers readily acknowledge that the party has benefited from the inability of the PTI to sustain its unexpected surge of last year.
“Perception matters a lot in politics. As the PTI stumbled, it was back to a choice between the PPP and the PML-N (for voters). Of course they were going to vote PML-N then,” said Sartaj Aziz, a veteran PML-N leader from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa who is vice chancellor of Beaconhouse National University in Lahore.
More proactively, though, the party has created a sophisticated machinery to raise its own stock and attack its opponents.
“There are two strands to the PML-N strategy: development projects and attacking the PTI,” said Suhail Warraich, an expert on Punjab politics. “To ensure the flood of development money is spent as intended, two senior bureaucrats have been deputed to the chief minister’s office specifically to monitor the flow of funds.”
“Then there is the PR machine. Led by Maryam Nawaz, the PML-N has set up a state-of-the-art media centre in Lahore,” Warraich said.
“But perhaps the most effective tool in the PML-N arsenal to break the PTI and other opponents has been its survey teams.”
HUNTING FOR ELECTABLES: According to Warraich and other analysts in Lahore, the PML-N’s strategy of flinging its doors open to so-called electables has been supplemented by meticulous and professional ‘political survey teams’ that have fanned out across the districts of Punjab over the past year.
A PML-N leader explained how the party had studied local political trends and identified potential winning candidates in Punjab:
“We sent our teams to the districts in two phases to see who is up and who is down. We hired professional polling organisations to conduct surveys for the party. We’ve had the Special Branch (of the police) build profiles of various candidates because they have the local knowledge and are up-to-date. So we have a much better idea about the dynamics in the districts and which groupings and panels to build.”
The strategy has even engendered optimism that the PML-N will make inroads in south Punjab, a region with approximately 45 of Punjab’s 148 directly elected parliamentary seats and where the PML-N is considered weak as compared to the PPP and the PML-Q.
“In the old Bahawalpur division we should pick up seats. Other districts like Muzaffargarh, Lodhran and Vehari we may improve in,” said Khwaja Asif, declining to speak on the record about the particular candidates the party is wooing or vetting.
Analysts, however, caution that while strong candidates on the hunt for a party ticket are lining up for talks with the PML-N, just as they were knocking on the PTI’s doors until earlier this year, the freelance and mercenary nature of much of Punjab’s politics means the PML-N can take little for granted.
“The party convinced Nawaz Sharif to open the doors to turncoats like Zahid Iqbal,” said Ashraf Mumtaz, a veteran Lahore-based journalist, referring to the winning candidate in the recent Sahiwal by-election who quit the PPP to join the PML-N. “But what’s the guarantee turncoats will stand by the PML-N in tough times? And there’s still a long way to go before the election, so it’s hard to say how many will be with the PML-N at election time.”
TOUGH FIGHT: While publicly the PML-N suggests it will dominate Punjab, at least the north and centre, which have 105 directly elected National Assembly seats, party leaders accept in private that a tough fight lies ahead in the general election.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party projections, a PML-N leader said: “If the trend continues, PML-N should be number 1, PPP number 2 and PTI number 3 in parliament. But the scale is hard to predict and will remain so until closer to the election.”
The leader continued: “As it stands, the PPP could end up with 50 seats or 80 (in the full 342-member National Assembly). Imran (Khan) could get 'MQM-size numbers' or slightly more. For us, 120 is the benchmark. Anything less, say 110, and it will be a struggle to form and sustain a government.”
Privately, PML-N leaders also accept, and other party leaders contend, that a four-way fight for Punjab — involving the PML-N, PPP, PML-Q and PTI — is still the most likely electoral scenario, rendering premature the predictions of a sizable overall victory for the N-League in the province.
Shafqat Mahmood, the PTI’s information secretary, said: “We’ve been distracted by our party elections. But once we get past that, we’ll have 13 elected party officials in almost every union council. The party will capture the support that is still very much out there for us.”
Leaders of PML-N acknowledge that polling data commissioned by the party continues to show significant support for the PTI in Punjab. In addition, some PML-N leaders speculate that the PTI could benefit from the PPP’s declining fortunes in north and central Punjab. “In the latest by-elections, we’ve received some reports of PPP votes that may be swinging towards the PTI,” a PML-N leader said.
PPP, PML-Q FALL BEHIND: For its part, the PPP-PML-Q alliance is still expected to eke out seats in Punjab on the back of candidates with strong local support. “The PML-Q has gone from being the King’s party to trying to become the kingmaker,” said Ashraf Mumtaz, the Lahore-based journalist. “They have the candidates to return to parliament with an MQM-type strength.”
“The PPP has got nothing to take to voters after the performance of the past four years, but they still have strongholds like Mandi (Bahauddin) and Gujrat. And with the PTI a factor, it’s hard to predict a total wipeout of the PPP because some of the three-way contests between N-League, PTI and PPP could swing the PPP’s way,” Mumtaz said.
Pervaiz Elahi, the former Punjab chief minister, who remains confident about the PML-Q’s prospects in Punjab, was less charitable about the PPP’s chances: “Gilani (the former premier) wasted four years. If he had done something, anything, it would have been possible to take some concrete achievement to the voters. But nothing was done.”
In a nod to the surging fortunes of bitter rival PML-N, Elahi said: “The best thing would be an anti-Nawaz coalition. We, PPP, JUI-F and PTI should join together and prevent the PML-N from coming back to power.”
With the PPP in deep trouble, the PML-Q reduced to a supporting role and the PTI’s second wind yet to materialise, the PML-N’s path to a clear victory in Punjab appears to have opened significantly.
But a PML-N leader cautioned: “Yes, the momentum is with us. But had we done better in the first three years, we would have been impossible to catch by now. We didn’t and so there’s still a fight on our hands. Can anyone stop our momentum? There’s always the army.”