At last, the great exercise in democracy is over and the results are in. There has been a vote for change, but it is almost as if the electorate has opted for a more traditional type of change, giving power to the PML-N, thus making Mian Nawaz Sharif the Prime Minister for a record third time. The win has been big, but has fallen short of the ‘massive mandate’ of 1996, when the PML-N not only won an absolute majority, but a two-third majority when allies were included.

One of the most significant developments was the replacement of the PPP by PTI. There remain strong ideological differences between the two, but PTI is definitely the party of the future for those who do not want the PML-N to win. It is almost as if the PTI attracted those PPP voters in the Punjab who were tired of losing. However, because the PTI is a new party in a relatively crowded political landscape, it needs more than one election to complete the process of replacement.

Though there will be parallels with the PPP, they will not be precise, because the PPP was not really a replacement party. It settled in an empty part of the political spectrum. If it replaced any party, it replaced the Muslim League, but that party has been finished off in the 1950s, and though it contested the 1970 elections, it did so as a number of factions. The PML, in the shape of the PML-N, only made a comeback in the 1990s, and did so as the main opponent to the PPP, occupying the space left on the political spectrum. The only way to make a place has to be replacing one existing party or the other. It appears that, as it positioned itself as the party of the youth, virtually by definition the party of the left, the PTI was obliging itself to opt for the PPP as the party it was targeting. The foreign policy elements, which draw it close to the conservatives, have a parallel in PPP history that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started as a party which had a very firmly nationalist foreign policy. However, three things happened. First, the secession of East Pakistan meant that the Pakistan Bhutto led was only half the one he contested elections in. Second, the liberals attracted to the party by its social policy ultimately affected its external policies. And third, relations with the military remained difficult, being close enough to allow a former COAS, Tikka Khan, to serve as its Secretary General, but far enough for Bhutto to be replaced by a military coup.

Perhaps, the PTI is in more of a bind than the PPP because there is now a closer relationship seen between foreign and domestic policies than before. It might help explain why there has been a bigger triumph for the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa than in Punjab. The ANP win of 2008 and its defeat now reflect an alternation in the province between conservatives and their opponents. There, it seems, the PTI has not so much replaced the PPP as opposed it, and thus has replaced the JUI-F and the religious parties. To the traditional problem of being liberal domestically and conservative externally, is added the problem of having one set of policies in one province, and another elsewhere.

However, the PTI has problems of growth, unlike the PPP. The PPP has fought its first election without a Bhutto at its helm. Though Bilawal Zardari Bhutto tried manfully to lead the campaign, he suffered from too many handicaps; the most important perhaps being that he was not the candidate for the prime ministership. His spending the campaign in Dubai, away from the attacks on the campaign, was of no help. President Asif Zardari also was found wanting, for the PPP was badly defeated on his first solo flight. He was prevented from campaigning, but the party was under him, and it performed badly. There is the niggling suspicion that he might be Bhutto’s elder son-in-law, but he is no substitute as party leader. Whatever his contribution to the defeat, the electoral college that has come into existence is very unlikely to re-elect him. Once he is no longer President, he will no longer enjoy the presidential immunity he has claimed, and which has saved him from prosecution. He may opt to leave the country at that point. This all creates an odd situation for the government, which has already to deal with President Zardari’s predecessor, whose trial for high treason has not yet been conducted.

Can the PPP make a comeback? Only if it is willing to change its leadership and undergo a radical makeover. One ray of hope has been that it has held firm in interior Sindh, perhaps, because there is no viable alternative there. Another, the presence of a new generation of Bhuttos waiting in the wings, is a double-edged sword, because their quality is not known. Also, the tragic family history means that none has been exposed to Zulfikar, and thus there has been no learning from his example. They are all dependent solely on his genes.

It is also worth noting that the country’s problems are making themselves apparent even before the transition of power does take place. The problems of coalition-building in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are intimately connected to the problem of the US occupation of Afghanistan and the impending US drawdown next year. The issue of whether or not the elections themselves are according to Islam or not is apparently not related, but since those campaigning against one also worked against the other, it appears that there was a mixing of a domestic and a foreign policy issue.

The absence of loadshedding during the election weekend, and its resumption immediately after, highlighted an issue that, probably, broke the PPP, and could well serve as a symbol of the whole election. As the Planning Commission has reported, the shortfall will last until at least 2020. Though the commitment of the people can be seen in the large turnout, there does not seem much expectation that there will be much change. The low expectation may well be because of the size and multiplicity of problems. Apart from those already mentioned, are relations with India (with Prime Minister-elect Mian Nawaz Sharif inviting Indian PM Manmohan Singh to his oath-taking), inflation and law and order.

The emphasis of the current election on the cleanliness of the process did not translate into a mandate for the PTI, even though its insistence on fair polls has created doubts about the process in Karachi and Lahore. However, as is now, perhaps, becoming clear, the election was not about the process as about who was to rule for the next five years. The problems are very different. The PTI, the only ‘change’ party to have survived into the Assemblies, has benefited the most from these polls, and that too mostly at the expense of the PPP. However, the PPP, though routed, is still going to form the Sindh government. It is the most opportune time to respect one another’s mandate. There are few question marks left about who should form the respective governments, and now is the time to let the parties form the governments the electorate has mandated them to.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.