Pak Punjab is the real battleground: It can make or break Imran's dreams

Imran is surely much closer to fulfilling his dream this time with a favourable playing field.

Imran Khan thought he was there in 2013, but it was not to be. He claimed that the elections were stolen. He won’t accept defeat and was willing to go to any extent to force mid-term polls. He failed. He was a man in a hurry, yet the “umpire” would not come to his help.

It’s 2018 now and back to the hustings. Has IK’s moment finally arrived? He is surely much closer to fulfilling his dream this time with a favourable playing field. Various opinion polls show that hisTehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) is fast closing the gap with the PML-N, its main rival. It does not seem difficult for the party with a strong, popular base to cross the barrier with “electables” and “angels” on its side.

A change of tack — from idealism to pure expediency — has certainly helped bring Imran Khan closer to his goal. The dice is further loaded in his favour with the decapitation of the main opponent. Yet nothing is ensured given the volatility of electoral politics. It’s not over till the last lap.

Described as the dirtiest ever, the 2018 polls are already mired in controversy. The zing witnessed in the previous elections is missing, with widespread allegations of pre-poll engineering. The wave of terrorist violence targeting election rallies has also dampened the spirit. Nonetheless, electioneering has picked up momentum with the aspirants out on the campaign trail. The trend is much clearer now with only one week left to go.

It seems almost certain that the PTI will be able to hold its ground in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, breaking away from the tradition of the province not re-electing the incumbent. Most opinion polls show that the party could even expand its tally in the province which it has ruled for five years. Although electables may have enhanced its prospects, the party, unlike in Punjab, has mainly relied on the old guard.

Some fundamental institutional reforms carried out by the PTI provincial government in education, health and the police system, sectors that matter most to ordinary people, appear to have paid off. Of course, the PTI faces challenges from other political parties in the field but none of them is in a position to dislodge it from its stronghold. The revival of the MMA was expected to lay the groundwork for a strong electoral contest, but there is no indication as yet of the religious alliance generating the wave needed to contain the PTI. The squabbling among the allied parties and the rise of an extremist sectarian group like Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah has further eroded the MMA’s chances even in its stronghold.

Other political parties like the PML-N, PPP and ANP are also in the field vying to get a share of the pie, but four-way electoral battles in most of the constituencies, especially in the Peshawar valley, give the PTI a clear edge. The PML-N is likely to retain some seats from the Hazara region that has traditionally been an extension of Punjab politics.

While a clear victory in KP does matter in the final reckoning, the real battleground is Punjab that could make or break Imran Khan’s dream. It is certainly not going to be an easy battle despite the alleged pre-poll management tilting the balance in the PTI’s favour. The large-scale defections from the PML-N ranks and the electables joining the party’s bandwagon has certainly increased the PTI’s chances in south Punjab. But it is not going to be smooth sailing given the existing political polarisation that seems to have intensified after Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and imprisonment.

It is central and northern Punjab that will finally determine the country’s future political scenario and of course Imran Khan’s fate. With the bulk of the National Assembly seats concentrated in the region that largely constitutes urban constituencies, unlike feudal-dominated southern Punjab, the rules of the game are completely different in the heartland.

There is no indication of the PML-N losing ground in its bastion despite some high-profile defections and alleged meddling of the “angels” persuading candidates to switch sides. There may not be a groundswell of mass sympathy for the PML-N after the imprisonment of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, but there is no evidence of any major cracks yet in the party’s popular support base either.

Surely the PTI seems to have made some inroads into the PML-N power base, yet it is difficult for it to dismantle the fortress notwithstanding “intervention” from any quarter. The PTI will be banking on some independents getting elected, but there will not be many from central Punjab. It may still stay in contention even if it manages to get 25 out of 95 from central and northern regions because of its potential advantage in KP and south Punjab.

In Sindh, the party has reached an electoral adjustment with the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), a conglomeration of disparate anti-PPP groups. With the party itself likely to get some seats and the GDA supported candidates winning a few more from interior Sindh, the PTI hopes to have some electoral presence in the province where the PPP appears unassailable. The disintegration of the MQM that has dominated the politics of urban Sindh for almost three decades has provided an opportunity for the PTI to grab a few more seats from Karachi.

Electoral politics in Balochistan is entirely a different ballgame where electables hold sway irrespective of which party they belong to. The emergence of the establishment-backed Balochistan Awami Party on the scene following the Senate elections has brought a new element to provincial electoral politics. The PTI seems to have already established some understanding with the group during the Senate chairman’s election early this year.

With these likely permutations, the PTI certainly stands a chance of scraping through to the pedestal in what are being described as one of the most controversial elections in the country’s recent history. It is the best and probably the last opportunity for Imran Khan to fulfil his dream. But there’s still a long way to go before the final lap.

By arrangement with Dawn

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