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PML-N’s uphill task in Punjab

PML-N’s uphill task in Punjab

Whether countrywide elections are held within three months to coincide with the elections to the Punjab Assembly, after its dissolution, or separately on the completion of the term of the National Assembly and the remaining provincial assemblies, it is abundantly clear that the PML-N has its work cut out for it.

All eyes will be on Punjab as the province has the lion’s share of the country’s 122.2 million registered voters at nearly 58 per cent of the total, with Sindh 21pc, KP 17pc and Balochistan picking up the smallest provincial share of just over 4pc.

Crucially, compared to the 2018 general elections the number of registered voters jumped up by 13pc in 2022 which translated into over 16m new voters. Of them, some 10m are in Punjab alone. It will be safe to assume many among this group in particular will have smartphones and use social media.

The voting intentions of this particular cohort could well influence the outcome of the elections, and significantly so, if the new voters are spread fairly and evenly across all the constituencies and their turnout percentage equals or exceeds the national turnout.

Can the electoral appeal of the father-daughter duo revive the party’s fortunes in Punjab?

The run-up to the next elections and its result will demonstrate whether the head start the PTI has in its use and domination of the social media is reflected in the votes cast in its favour, particularly by the younger social media-savvy voter.

The PML-N knows that it has an uphill task to win back Punjab from the PTI. It will know from experience that even if initially given a leg up by the military and its agencies, once a party drops roots among the electorate, it is impossible to dismiss it as an also-ran.

Little wonder then that the PML-N has announced that the recently elevated chief organiser, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, will be returning to Pakistan within a fortnight. Sources also say PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif may himself also be on his way home to take command of the campaign ahead of the next elections in Punjab if he can secure his freedom from the courts.

Whether the electoral appeal of the father-daughter duo can succeed in reviving the party’s fortunes in Punjab or whether its efforts will go the same way as PPP leader Benazir Bhutto’s in the 1990s, once the PML-N had been established as a major political player dislodging the PPP from its perch with the establishment’s assistance in the province, is a question that can only be answered at the ballot box.

For starters, Ms Nawaz was quoted in the media as having said that the PML-N will use ‘modern techniques’ in the next election. Since there was no elaboration, one can’t say what exactly she was referring to. In case she was talking of upping her party’s social media presence, she will know that bridging the gap with the PTI will require a Herculean effort.

The PTI has built its social media presence over a long period of time and used top professionals to generate sites and trends and invested in social media influencers. You and I may dismiss some of these self-styled journalists because of their dodgy content. But one look at the number of their followers on different platforms will testify to the sway they may hold over younger audiences.

Most PTI messages come right from the top, as the illegally recorded and leaked phone conversations demonstrate, and are carefully designed to influence thinking. The party also has the advantage of making some of these messages into ‘trends’, thereby ensuring more traction for them.

As I have written in these columns previously, there are those among political commentators who disagree that social media plays a big part in winning arguments and say that personal, door-to-door campaigns and the leader’s ‘handshake’ deliver a bigger dividend.

At no point in my submissions have I meant to suggest that one of the two means of contacting voters is more effective than the other or that either is dispensable. However, I do believe that one or the other can be more effective in targeting, depending on the voter segment.

I don’t know whether the PTI can repeat its magnificent Punjab by-election victories in the next provincial and general elections is a moot point. The PML-N’s top vote-pullers will be in action this time. One aspect that few commentators have focused on is how much, if at all, those electoral exercises were influenced by other factors.

The foremost among them was the former army chief’s reported desire to secure another extension. Many sources tell me that all kinds of games were being played to push the government into giving another extension, even if it was shorter than the last three-year one, after the PTI leader said he would support such a move.

Nawaz Sharif is said to have dug in his heels and refused. Bizarrely, two reliable sources said, at one point just ahead of the naming of the new chief there were even some threats that martial law would be imposed on grounds of political instability and grave economic challenges.

Admittedly, all that is in the past now. What isn’t is the back-breaking inflation which has inflicted untold misery on a large chunk of the population. The hard-pressed voters, precariously placed in their battle for survival, will always blame the incumbents.

Their struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table must leave them exhausted, even feeling defeated, and they have no time to hear whose policies in Pakistan are actually to blame, let alone globally.

In the 2013 elections, the PML-N will recall it all but wiped out the PPP from Punjab on account of the latter party’s failure to end loadshedding. Nobody bought the PPP’s defence that it was hamstrung by the superior courts in addressing the issue, even ‘sabotaged’ by the men in black robes.

Many will wonder if inflation will mean for the PML-N in 2023 what loadshedding meant for the PPP in 2013.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
[email protected]

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2023

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