Saturday, Oct 21, 2017 | Last Update : 11:58 AM IST

Pak likely to see 3-way split in 2018

Published : Sep 25, 2017, 5:31 am IST
Updated : Sep 25, 2017, 5:32 am IST

The PML(N) had been expected to finish first and the PTI to give it a run for its money — the only question was how close would they get.

Ousted Pak PM Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)
 Ousted Pak PM Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

And uncertainty. Plenty of uncertainty. Are we back to 2013 or 2008? Or even 2002? The only thing that doesn’t seem likely is that 2018 will bring something new. Let’s start in reverse.

The Lahore result has left matters looking awfully like 2013. Any fool can see that. Back then, the results were a surprise but not a shock.

The PML(N) had been expected to finish first and the PTI to give it a run for its money — the only question was how close would they get.

For PTI believers, the dream itself seemed possible: a crumbling PPP vote bank, inert PML(N) support and a wave of first-time voters breaking for PTI combining to deliver a historic victory.

A thumping N-League victory drove the PTI into angry denial, but for those willing to look, it was clear how narrow a path to a majority the PML(N) had tread.

Forgotten now is the desperate campaigning between late April when tickets were finalised and Imran’s tumble from a dodgy forklift in a fog of heat and exhaustion just hours before the campaigns were set to close.

For three weeks, Nawaz campaigned like a man possessed; his aides claimed that had always been the plan, but nothing in his habits before or since suggested it was anything but the sudden fear of losing.

So forget the margin of victory and the howls of rigging that followed. If you’re number two, you can become number one — it’s a reality of a first-past-the-post system that any candidate who has travelled in either direction can tell you.

The dominance of the PML(N)’s victory also obscured the ricketiness of its majority. The N-League is a one-province trick: to cling to power at the Centre, it has to utterly sweep Punjab.

The next time round, in 2018, the N-League may get some help from KP. The province has refused to re-elect anyone this century and it’s switched from MMA to PPP/ANP to PTI so far.

So it should be the N-League’s turn — it’s the only one left after walking away from the chance in 2013. But the boost from KP, if it materialises, will still be marginal; KP divides its seats among several parties.

There’s also a new headache potentially for the PML(N): the census has nudged downwards Punjab’s share of the population, which can reduce its relative seat count.

The N-League will secretly be pleased the census is being disputed because it defers addressing the matter of readjusting provincial seat shares (already complicated by the possibility of a constitutional amendment being needed).

So, a two-way fight in Punjab with the winner taking all, just like in 2013 — sounds simple enough, right?

Possibly. Until you remember that 2013 had threatened to look like 2008 until the results poured in.

Back then, back in 2008, a PPP sympathy wave had failed to materialise, PML(N) surged to unexpected gains and the PML(Q) crumbled to third place — and a hung Parliament was the result. It happened largely because Punjab was divided three ways.

BB’s assassination and unhappiness with Musharraf severely depleted the Q-League’s vote, but ideological hesitation and the need to do Nawaz a favour for failing him in 1999 meant the Punjabi voter swung to the N-League, not the PPP.

The next time round, in 2018, a three-way split of a different kind is possible.

The closer the PTI gets to the PML(N) in Punjab, the greater chance it has to overtake it next year — but that could still leave them splitting Punjab rather than the PTI dominating Punjab like the N-League did in 2013.

With the two of them sharing bits and bobs from the other provinces, that would still leave untouched Zardari in Sindh — a hefty rural majority in a province with no obvious challenger.

So, a kind of replay of 2008 would look something like this: either Nawaz or Imran having the largest share in Parliament, but short of a majority; and Zardari emerging as kingmaker of sorts, running a distant but vital third.

You can see why Zardari seems unperturbed even as the PPP panics. With the tables in Sindh reversed and the PPP potentially needed to balance out the MQM, Zardari has some cards to play.

A three-way national split in 2018 and another five years of coalition, then?

Possibly. Until you remember the 2002 election. Back then the boys had had enough after a decade of alternating PPP-PML(N).

Musharraf had already taken over and he wanted to continue past his referendum, so he carved out the PML(Q) from the paralysed PPP and PML(N) and fused it to your sundry ugly electables.

But a funny thing happened: the PML(Q) fell short of a majority. It came close, damn close, but the magic number was missed. The N-League was decimated, but between the MMA and PPP a three-party house emerged.

Of course, with Musharraf’s support and the Q-League’s alacrity, it was pretty much the dictator’s way with a side of right-wing nakhras by the MMA.

What’s that got to do with 2018?

Well, Nawaz doesn’t seem willing to sail off into the sunset and take his daughter and wife with him. And if there’s anyone who’s reviled more than Nawaz, it’s Zardari.

So why not the boys resurrect their political cell and set it to do a bit of rearranging? The PTI is available and willing, the N-League and PPP vulnerable to carving — and the veneer of democracy potentially preventing total engineering.

Maybe 2002 isn’t such a fantasy after all? It may be the only way to break the gridlock in 2018.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, imran khan, pervez musharraf