The result of the Punjab provincial assembly by-elections in the city of Chakwal once again confirmed that Sharif and his party PML-N has not lost its vote bank. The margin of victory was around 30 thousand votes. It was expected that PML-N would retain the seat but no one expected such a wide margin victory for the PML-N.
Sharif’s vote bank seems to have increased despite the fact that he is being targeted allegedly by the establishment and their political allies. Even the ongoing media trial of his corruption and a vicious blasphemy campaign against him and his party has not dented his votes nor is his popularity in the province of Punjab diminishing.
The opposition has tried almost everything from agitation to a media trial and seeking help from invisible forces, but nothing has worked in their favour until now. Sharif’s popularity and his ability to retain his vote bank is a mystery to many critics. Normally, a sitting government always pays the price for incumbency in general elections, but watching the results of the surveys conducted by different think tanks and with the results of the by-elections where Sharif managed to defeat his opponents convincingly, it is safe to say that Sharif’s party is going to win the next general election.
The development work carried out by the younger Sharif in Punjab is more than enough to grab the urban voters and the art of constituency politics of the elder Sharif is going to win them the seats in rural areas.
Sharif is a shrewd politician and unlike his opponent Imran Khan he has a cool head on his shoulders. Historically, Sharif always shows his card very late and always surprises his enemies with a stalemate. His main opponent Khan is an emotional person who does not want to wait. Khan’s untime political moves and his co-operation with the establishment and extremists like Samiul Haq has badly damaged his reputation in the Province of Punjab. If this was not enough, his choice of words and habit of abusing anyone who does not stand with him, did the rest of it.
Sharif, unlike the other politicians in the country, realised very early that the dynamics of politics have changed and clearly read the writing on the wall that the voters’ mindset had changed also. They are no longer interested in giving votes just for the sake of party affiliations. He also read the global events well and realised that the conservative style of politics and a hostile narrative towards neighbours are not acceptable in modern times.
So, Sharif focused his attention on the mega development projects, like the metro bus services in the cities of Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan, the orange train in Lahore, the network of roads and motorways, and he actually also did well to end the electricity crisis. In addition to this, Sharif changed his style of politics and from a traditional conservative political party he turned PML-N into a liberal and anti-establishment political force.
Sharif, unlike Bhutto, did not close all his options and let his younger brother perform the role of good cop. So the elder Sharif being a bad cop criticizes the political role of the establishment and judiciary and continues to build a narrative against these forces and institutions, while the younger Sharif plays the good cop role and keeps on praising the establishment and often sides with them. This policy of good cop/bad cop has actually given Sharif the unique opportunity to enjoy both the government and opposition role.
On the other hand, Zardari did not read the changing narrative of politics well and as a result his party the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is limited only to the province of rural Sindh. Contrary to that, Khan grabbed the attention of the urban population mainly youth and became a threat to Sharif, but his lack of patience and his persistence with an old style of politics dependent on the establishment and religious vote bank made his position very weak. His agitation politics was also not welcomed by the majority of voters of Punjab and the results of almost every by poll is evidence.
Had Khan been able to focus on making mega projects like Sharif, he would have been in a very good position to become the next prime minister of Pakistan. Unfortunately, he wasted this opportunity by not creating any mega project of development and wasted all his energies on toppling Sharif. This has given Sharif an edge, as with almost zero load shedding, and with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), health reforms, motorways and metro bus under his belt, he has a lot to show as an indication of his good performance.
The wave of sympathy from Punjab after his disqualification is also in his favour. He has regained the lost place among the youth by bringing Maryam Nawaz to the helm of affairs. She actually smartly spread the message and narrative of her father and party and through the effective use of social and electronic media, grabbed a lot of support from the urban middle class youth of Punjab.
Sharif’s good relations with international global players also kept him in the good books of the international establishment and he has surely maneuvered the chessboard with their help, especially when he was almost done and dusted with the help of the judiciary by the establishment. If Sharif somehow survives until the next general elections he will become the first politician in the history of the country to be toppled thrice and still managed to come to power for the fourth time.
Politics right now seems to all be about Sharif. Even though he is not the prime minister anymore, is facing a trial and judiciary hostile towards him, and does not have any support from the establishment, he still somehow manages to keep himself at the center of politics. This actually shows that Khan and Zardari are inept and are not able to understand the fact that the more they focus on Sharif the more powerful and relevant he becomes.
In politics sometimes you need criticism and agitation against you to keep your vote bank intact. Sharif did the same thing, he let all his rivals play their cards, he let them agitate and lock down the cities. He knew that the more his rivals agitate the more they will be exposed as the forces against democracy and development. Khan fell into the trap much earlier while Zardari joined the boat very late only in the hope of getting a little sympathy of the establishment so at least he can save the province of Sindh in the next general elections.
Khan and Zardari’s weak position can also be understood by the fact they are counting on a non-political entity and religious cleric Tahirul Qadri to topple the PML-N government. They both know it is their last chance and if somehow they are not able to topple the government and get an early election it will be almost impossible to defeat Sharif and his party in the coming elections.
Who will have the last laugh, only time will tell, but right now it is Sharif who is gaining from each conspiracy and move played by the establishment and his political opponents. It is the art of understanding the right time and right place to counter the moves from opponents and to focus on development projects that has turned the tables in favour of Sharif, and he seems to be a force that cannot be defeated through the power of the ballot.