The Rai wind


For now, the PML-N has much to shut about

With election campaign gathering steam, crystal ball gazing is all the rage. Opinion polls are coming thick and fast — itself an indicator of how much is riding on the much trumpeted definitive exercise for the future of this wretched country.

Even though those at the losing end of the arithmetic still play down the import — the usual grouse is sample size — for public consumption, there is now grudging acceptance of what these portend even if behind closed doors.

An unbiased look would reveal a decent predictor of how the pendulum has swung in recent time. For example, findings from the houses of IRI and Gallup Pakistan over the past three months appear to reflect the situation on the ground.

The PML-N is riding a crest of wave both in terms of popularity and electability. Its sweep is evident in the swarm of candidates from other parties who have converged at the House of Raiwind in the hope of winning the meal ticket.

The IRI survey conducted in November 2012 put the voter inclination for PML-N at 32%; it has since shot to 41% in February 2013 in the Gallup poll with the mean score rounding to 37%.

The PML-N has burnt the midnight oil to get here. Perhaps, it has, Imran Khan, its immediate popular rival in the Punjab province — which has the highest National Assembly seats (148) as well as provincial seats (371) on offer — to thank for.

When Khan stunned all comers with a spectacular show of force on October 30, 2011 in Lahore — the date is likely to etch itself in Pakistan’s history as a game-changer either ways — the PML-N was forced to remove the mask of complacency and come out all guns blazing.

The Sharifs set about getting the house in order with a massive campaign drive complemented by a slew of some very visible public schemes to regain lost ground.

The party has since relaxed its policy of shunning turncoats and completely nixed the idea of going solo to reinforce its electoral prospects. In the last year or so, it has had the nearest thing to a windfall as Khan’s Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf gradually lost momentum.

In fact, so lopsided has the one-way ticket ride in the direction of the PML-N been the last few months that it has shaken the Centre-ruling PPP out of its stupor. For a long time, President Asif Zardari was sitting smug on the fence hoping that the PTI would divide the PML-N vote bank and that it would redound to the PPP’s advantage.

It can now happen only if a second wind propels the PTI back into the frame — not unlikely given how Khan’s party cadres fresh from intra-party polls are rearing to have a go — but it is a tall order in purely electability terms.

There is often a wide gap between popularity and electability in the rough and tumble of Pakistan’s electoral science. The field is still determined by hard-nosed electoral peculiarities such as clan politics as well as financial and administrative muscle.

This means the voters will be inclined to go for candidates more likely to deliver on the tried and tested formula rather than ring in the new merely on the back of promised change. This explains the dichotomy of Khan’s mass appeal and the apparent daylight in terms of translation.

The IRI-Gallup survey also makes this obvious in the case of the PPP, whose graph has actually risen against the run of play. If popularity alone was the barometer, the ruling party would stand little chance, thanks in no small part to the spectacular lack of governance over a full term.

However, President Zardari’s ability to keep the varied flock in his Centre and provincial coalitions satiated means he may still pull a rabbit out of the hat and a likely resurgence in PTI’s ranks may, after all, still matter just about enough to break the shackles in Punjab for the PPP, which is only assured of a chunk in the southern belt.

It merits attention that the PPP will still have their man in the Presidency when the elections are held and a few months after he invites a claimant to form the government as well as control of the Senate without which no law can be passed.

Significantly, as the only party with a nationally representative presence, it is likely to sustain its appeal for the stakeholders.

Both the PPP and the PTI are placed second with a national mean score of 16% in the latest findings — with the former gaining 3 percentage points and the latter losing 4 percentage points. This is only as far as popularity goes; electability is an entirely different ball game, of course.

Once again this chasm is reflected in how even the now-apparently, redundant PML-Q whose candidates have flocked to the PML-N in droves — some of them en route PTI — has still managed to gain 2 percentage points over the initial dampener in November last year. This is down to either individual electability or the viability of seat adjustment.

However, the Quislings are rapidly crumbling into insignificance.

Even though both the PML-N and PPP are confident of staking a claim to form the government at the Centre, the ultimate kingmakers may well be candidates from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Independents.

If the past is any guide, whoever coughs up more sops from amongst the claimants will determine who gets past the post.

The writer is Editor Pique Magazine based in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]


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