This game of thrones will be played in Punjab. And here, the devil is not in the details — it’s in the numbers.
But before we turn to these numbers, here’s the context: the fresh delimitation of constituencies has not been kind to the province. Earlier this week, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) notified the final and updated constituency list for the country after having disposed of all the complaints that had been filed against the changes. The electoral land map for 2018 is now locked and loaded. Political parties are all set to award tickets to aspiring candidates. Loyalties are about to undergo a severe stress test.
Numbers tell the rest of the story. As per fresh delimitations, the total number of directly contested seats for the National Assembly remains at 272. This means the magic figure to reach in order to form the next federal government will be 137 (the final ratio will stay the same after the reserved seats are added). This is a huge number to achieve for a single party at any given day, and more so in the present situation where the electorate appears ruptured and fractured.
Of these 272 directly contested seats, Punjab’s share till the elections of 2013 was 148 seats. The fresh delimitation of constituencies has sliced off seven seats from Punjab so it is now left with 141 seats. That’s still a lot of seats.
Where these 141 seats are situated is also important. Of the thirty-six districts of Punjab, eleven are considered part of south Punjab. They are Rahim Yar Khan, Bahawalpur, Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Lodhran, Vehari, Multan, Khanewal, Muzaffargarh, Layyah and Bahawalnagar. Between them, these eleven districts have a tally of 46 National Assembly seats. This number has remain unchanged in the new delimitation — which means all the seven seats that Punjab has lost have been lost from north Punjab.
And north is where the PML-N is. It is this north — burgeoning, urbanising and prospering north — that pulsates to the tune of Nawaz Sharif. Or, has done so in the past. This is Sharif territory. From Attock to Sahiwal, these twenty-five districts are the fortress that have over the decades fed, housed and sheltered the Sharif juggernaut. Yes this fortress has been breached in the past, but every time it has recouped and rejoined the Sharif army of voters.
Each of this north district has held the Sharif banner high: Attock, Rawalpindi, Chakwal, Jhelum, Sargodha, Khushab, Mianwali, Bhakkar, Faisalabad, Chiniot, Jhang, Toba Tek Singh, Gujranwala, Hafizabad, Gujrat, Mandi Bahauddin, Sialkot, Narowal, Lahore, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Kasur, Okara, Pakpattan and Sahiwal. Till the 2013 elections these districts of north Punjab comprised 102 of the 148 seats of Punjab.
Of these 102 seats in north Punjab, in 2013 the PML-N had won 95.
The battleground in the north has now shrunk by seven seats and the fight will be on 95 seats. In almost all of them this fight will be a head-on collision between the electoral armies of the PML-N and the PTI.
For the PML-N, therefore, north Punjab must be protected against the invading hordes of a resurgent, replenished and re-energised PTI. The south too, with its 46 valuable seats, is critical but there the situation is a bit different. Traditionally, the relatively less urban and less prosperous south has voted for landed electables and the PPP has also enjoyed considerable traction, except of course for the rout of 2013. This year the first defections from the PML-N have also happened from the south and more are expected as the party limps towards the end of its tenure. With individual influence often overshadowing party vote banks, candidates’ loyalties to parties are based less on conviction and more on convenience. South could go this way, or that way — or a third way.
But the north?
No sane person within the PML-N expects to match the impressive tally of 2013 in this region (95 out of 102 seats). But the harvesting of this electorally fertile soil has never been more important for the party and its future. The devil — as mentioned earlier — is not in the details but in the numbers. And these numbers build their own strategy:
Look at the heavy concentration of seats in big urbanising districts: Lahore (14), Faisalabad (10), Rawalpindi (7), Gujranwala (6), Sargodha (5), Sialkot (5), Kasur (5), and Okara (5). That’s a treasure trove of 57 seats from eight districts.
In a vast majority of these 95 north Punjab constituencies, the PMLN has had the ideal combination of a strong electable candidate buttressed by a solid party vote bank. This year, both factors are uncertain as of now: will the electables jump ship, and will the vote bank splinter? These are subjective questions and ultimately the game comes back to those darned numbers.
Here then is the key question: how many of these 95 north Punjab seats does the PML-N need to win to stay alive in the post-election coalition game? Remember, the magic number to form a government is 137 (of the directly elected seats). In 2013, the PML-N bagged 95 of the 102 north Punjab seats so if we deduct the seven seats shaved off by the latest delimitation, we can assume the PML-N strength to be 88 instead of 95. If in this election — given the stress, trials and tribulations of the party, its strength is reduced to half, ie, from 88 to 44 seats of 95 in north Punjab, is this too little? Even if the party picks up a few from south Punjab and a smattering from the other provinces, many fear the tally would not be enough for the party to have a real shot at making a coalition government?
What then is the magic number here for the PML-N? If it can somehow win 60 of these 95 seats from its stronghold, this could enable the party to bring its total nationwide tally to perhaps somewhere in the region of 80. This number would give it enough of a base to attempt a coalition government.
The numbers do tell a story, and carve out a strategy — but they still depend on the one question that every single PML-N leader and supporter should be asking.
Will the North hold?
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2018.