Now that the elections are well over, it is time to have a serious conversation and ask important questions. The first and obvious one is: Why did the PML-N lose the elections?
Beyond the PML-N’s rhetoric of pre-poll and Election Day rigging, there are clear reasons why the party lost the elections. Unfortunately, rigging is not one of them.
To begin with the PML-N has to recognise that it has over the years become the PTI of the 2013 elections: a party heavily reliant on social media as its data point for analysis and strategy. In 2013, the PML-N had near absence on social media and the top decisions-makers saw social media as a poor reflection of the ground sentiment. This was confirmed especially in the aftermath of the PTI’s defeat that exposed social media as an echo chamber of sorts. The information flow of the PML-N’s top leadership was directly from the ground through political networks and agents.
Unfortunately, with the PML-N’s command and control shift in the hands of the ex-prime minister’s daughter who had little exposure outside of social media, the PML-N in the past few years saw a serious disconnect from the ground while an unprecedented growth in the social media space. Nawaz saw what Maryam saw, and Maryam saw Twitter feed full of praises from Bukharis, Ranjhas and fake accounts that said: go for a head-on collision with the Army.
Hence, what the PML-N ended up for its election campaign was ‘vote ko izzat do’ instead of focusing entirely on ‘khidmat ko izzat do’. Almost unanimously, the party workers on ground were convinced that the campaign was flawed. The notions of civilian supremacy and anti-establishment narrative were damaging the party a lot more than it was helping. The party workers complained that the PML-N had one clear selling point: development agenda and performance of Shehbaz Sharif in comparison to K-P and Imran Khan. However, the return of Nawaz that some within the party thought would stir the PML-N voter and those sitting on the fence to vote for the PML-N did not really happen.
What instead happened was a misguided and weak election campaign based on social media perception of one individual who had the ears of the party leader. The truth is, civilian supremacy and anti-establishment narrative may get thousands of retweets and likes but do not translate the same way on ground on the Election Day.
The second reason is the infighting and perception of infighting within the PML-N. Nawaz consolidated his power within the PML-N and for long ruled by not letting any other individual, including his own brother, to become a leader in his own right within the party. While it kept Nawaz in control and unchallenged, in his absence the party started crumbling without a leadership. Given especially how reluctantly Nawaz gave up power to Shehbaz, the message down to the political worker and voter was that all is not fine within the house of Sharif. When it came to the election campaign, Shehbaz essentially became a prisoner to Nawaz’s overwhelming anti-establishment narrative. Where Shehbaz had to take the lead, Nawaz’s behind the scenes manoeuvers almost appeared to be deliberate against his own brother who had a good chance to win the elections. Between ‘vote ko izzat do’ and ‘khidmat ko izzat do’ the elections fell to ‘tabdeeli’.
Rigging or no rigging, the PML-N’s election campaign was flawed and the basics not right. It’s hard to run an election campaign that has confusing and contradictory messages of development and agitation locked in a strange mix, with two party faces. Rest of the party leaders were of no help either. Expecting to tie down Imran and the PTI through Reham Khan’s expose, PML-N’s ministers and politicians instead got themselves bogged down in their own mess. The PML-N could not have done a worse job at what it usually does best.
Despite that it is no small feat that the PML-N secured 64 seats in the National Assembly. It should not however confuse its current standing as an approval of Nawaz’s civil-military narrative. In fact if it fleshes a little and see beyond the larger than life image of Nawaz, it may find that Shehbaz has long replaced his brother as the favourite son of Punjab. May be for next time!
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2018.