ISLAMABAD - Three years ahead of the general elections, scheduled for 2018, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) has fallen into disarray as internal rifts have hit the party's popularity graph hard.

Insiders confided to The Nation that the differences among the party ranks have worsened in the recent months and if the leadership did not take a quick action, these could worsen in the days to come.

PTI chief Imran Khan and other senior leaders have been demanding mid-term elections accusing the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of losing the moral authority to rule, but sources within the party maintain that PTI is least prepared to walk into the polls thanks to the ever-growing internal rifts.

"For PTI even 2018 can be tricky. The rifts are a constant headache for the leadership. We desired mid-term election but can't afford it (due to the differences over ticket allocation in majority of the constituencies where the PTI has a chance to win)," said a source close to the top PTI leadership.

"There is a lot of work to do before the elections. If we go straight into the elections, say next year, we may not get the desired results at all. Our leadership knows it and we are going for reorganisation and settling rifts," he added.

The PTI also understands that the popularity graph of the PML-N has improved and with several development projects nearing competition this might go further up the ladder. Survey reports appreciating the government's performance have also put the PTI on the back foot.

Another PTI leader said the party will not demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's resignation and might hold talks at a later stage to come to terms on holding early elections, may be a year or so ahead of the schedule.

"This would partially fulfil our demand and also give us time to prepare for the polls. Imran Khan will (in the meanwhile) start a vigorous campaign in Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to mobilise workers and minimise the rifts," he said. "Good candidates need to be selected and some black sheep have to be kicked out. There is a hell of a job before going for the ballot," he opined.

The PTI leader said Imran Khan has tasked a team to meet the dissidents in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces to find solution to the problem before it gets worse.

"Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are our main hopes and if the differences among the local leaders continue, it will be difficult to find consensus candidates who can translate all party vote bank into the ballot," he observed.

Imran Khan had led a marathon sit-in in front of the parliament last year seeking Prime Minister Sharif's resignation and fresh elections. Things have, however, changed since then as the government formed a judicial commission to probe the PTI chief's allegations. During this period rifts were reported in the party in all the provinces as ignored party workers threatened to walk away.

The in-fight softened the tone of Imran Khan who is now in principle ready to accept PM Sharif while he himself reorganises the party for the next polls.

There is an overwhelming consensus in the country that significant electoral reforms are needed to improve the quality of the electoral process and preclude allegations of rigging and fraud that tar the legitimacy of the exercise and subsequently lead to political instability.

Accordingly, a committee on electoral reform comprising 33 members from across the party-political spectrum, including PTI, in both houses of parliament has been set up.

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will welcome early elections but will never demand it. "We will let the PTI demand early polls and if that happens, we will happily participate", said a PPP leader.

Analysts said the PPP does not want Nawaz Sharif to comfortably complete his term as they have not forgotten or forgiven him for his agitation during their tenure in the wake of restoration of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as the top judge.

"(Asif Ali) Zardari implemented governor raj (rule) of Salman Taseer in Punjab and Nawaz Sharif took it to the streets of Lahore for lawyers and justice movement. So there are bad memories on both the sides", one analyst said.

"These memories prompt the PPP to silently support the PTI against the government", he added.

Opposition leader Khurshid Shah even has suggested resignation of Nawaz Sharif if rigging is proved. "PPP needs time to regroup after debacle last year in elections. They know that Imran Khan is not going to be the Prime Minister in any case and they are happy to see him creating chaos in Islamabad", said another commentator.  

"This is all win-win situation for PPP, who know that if Nawaz Sharif goes out, there is no one but them to fill the gap with the help of allies. PPP easily can take Sindh, Balochistan, Northern Areas and Southern Punjab. With Nawaz Sharif gone, and with gap of 2 more years, they will also hope to get a chunk in central Punjab", he noted.

"It is best for the PTI to work on their party and wait for the general elections till 2018. Only this way, they will be able to make some impact," added the political analyst.