Senate elections are done and one controversy has gone to its grave. But many more lurk ominously. Here’s what the next 90 days could hold:
1. The PML-N is still very much in the game as evidenced by its impressive performance in the Senate elections. It has taken hits from top court judgments but so far has held itself together as a party and managed the tricky and delicate matter of succession with apparent smoothness. If some feathers have been ruffled during this succession (Shehbaz Sharif replacing Nawaz Sharif as the president of the party) it has not become too obvious in the public domain. In July last year, many from among the opposition had predicted that the PML-N as a unified party would not be able to withstand the disqualification of its leader and would fracture. That did not happen. With the Senate elections done and over with, the party now has crossed a huge hurdle.
2. The next hurdle is the verdict of the Accountability Court in the case against Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and others. In the worst case scenario all would be convicted and sent to jail. If this happens, is the party likely to see desertions? With Shehbaz now holding the party together as its president, the PML-N expects to tide over the challenge of convictions and go into the election campaign in a fighting and defiant mode. If Nawaz and Maryam are both incarcerated, the party will turbo-charge its campaign using the symbolism of its leadership jailed as a result of a ‘conspiracy’ by those who have joined hands to ensure the ouster of the Sharifs. Shehbaz will lead the campaign and will most likely replace his milder positioning with a hawkish line more in tune with that of Nawaz and Maryam. If Maryam escapes conviction, she will fire up the campaign trail along with her uncle.
3. It is fairly clear that the PML-N is not splitting in Nawaz and Shehbaz camps and therefore will go into elections as a unified entity. However can it experience significant desertions from within its ranks? If there is one genuine threat to the party and its electoral prospects, it is this possibility of many so-called ‘electables’ breaking away from it. And yet these electables need a reason to break away — a reason that is of course rooted in the propagation and promotion of their self-interest. In other words, how will they benefit from jumping off the PML-N bandwagon and clambering atop another one? Anecdotal evidence suggests many such electables have been getting calls from various quarters urging them to jump ship. They will only do so if they calculate their winning chances to be brighter with some other ticket.
4. The alternative of course is the PTI. However, a handful of defections from the PML-N to the PTI in Punjab will not do the trick. The numbers have to be large enough to make a significant dent, and cement a perception that a PML-N ticket is not a winning ticket any more.
5. There’s another problem with such a scenario: if electables from the PML-N join the PTI, they will do so only on the guarantee of a PTI ticket. This means they will replace the existing PTI candidate. Deprived of a ticket at this late stage, this candidate will become the aggrieved party. The local constituency dynamics will ensure this candidate becomes the spoiler and either contests as an independent or aligns himself with the opposing candidate, or at the very least withdraws his support. This could spell trouble for the PTI in some constituencies.
6. The PTI for its part needs to pick up the momentum that it lost sometime during its last romance with the discredited Tahirul Qadri. It needs to be seen as the winning party, not the king’s party. As things stand today, the party’s enduring images of the last few months are: a) empty chairs in the Lahore Charing Cross jalsa; b) a defeated Jahangir Tareen sitting morosely with his son as the shock results of Lodhran poured in; and c) Imran Khan sitting with his veiled wife as controversy swirled around the date of his wedding. Whichever way one sees it, these images do not help the party a few months before the elections. The surprise victory of Chaudhry Sarwar in the Senate elections is a much-needed reprieve for the party from a long line of electoral defeats. The PTI however desperately needs a makeover.
7. The Ahad Cheema affair is taking a toll on Brand Shehbaz. Cheema is under arrest by NAB for his role in a failed housing scheme and has plenty to explain to investigators. Will the investigations lead to Shehbaz himself? At this stage it appears unlikely as per senior officials. However, the negative political impact is already making its presence felt. There is a chink in the Shehbaz armour which his opponents will gladly exploit if allegations against Ahad Cheema are proven in the court of law. The timing, as always, is key. Will the Cheema affair drag on beyond the elections? If so, will calculated leaks from the investigation be ensured? Such leaks will keep tarnishing Brand Shehbaz at a time when he is shouldering the burden of the party presidency.
8. With less than 90 days left in the current National Assembly’s term, parties will start locking in their candidates wherever possible. This means with each passing day conspiracy theories about the fate of elections are getting weaker and weaker. The PML-N believes if it can survive these 90 days without major defections it stands to do very well in the elections.
9. This may be one reason the party would prefer the shortest possible time for the caretaker government. This can be done if the government dissolves the parliament before the expiry date of May 31st. If it were to do so, elections would need to be held within 60 days as opposed to 90 days if the assembly completes its full term on May 31st.
10. Now that the Senate elections are done, the race for the caretaker prime minister and his cabinet is on. The next few weeks will see names of many hopeful being bandied about in the media. Ninety days can still be a long time.