The confusion ahead

THERE’S little sympathy for the chap except for this: he’s getting it in the neck from all sides because there’s another chap who folk dare not say anything against and one who folk dare not think about saying anything against.

So forget about the buffoon in NAB.

And already forgotten is poor Ahsan Iqbal. Political violence is a familiar scar and around elections, an open wound. But violence seems to have been normalised, an accepted fact of political life. Oh, some dude tried to assassinate the interior minister? Shrug.

Read: For Nawaz, it’s not over till it’s over

Now, if someone had shot at an iqama or, better yet, an iqama had been the shooter — sweet justice and national pandemonium. Then again, poor Ahsan Iqbal is probably better off quickly forgotten. Lest someone try and finish off the job.

Can’t talk about the judge, can’t really discuss the boys and their activities — seen up close, it’s much, much worse than what is mostly whispered — and need to stay the hell away from the kooks and loons acting on divine instruction.

Which leaves the election.

And why everyone will struggle. Struggle to win outright, struggle to break opponents, struggle to cross 100 in the NA, struggle to get some kind of mandate. Because it’s mightily complicated.

It’s too early to know the exact shape the contest will take. The revolving political doors have not yet opened for candidates. The first burst of activity will be soon after parliament is dissolved, the second likely after Eid.

Early July, the field will more or less be settled.

But the general problem is already apparent. Over to Ahsan Iqbal from 2013, in part because anyone who has freshly taken a bullet deserves to be remembered a bit. The key to winning an election at the constituency level:

So, a three-digit code for the three big parties, PML-N, PPP and PTI, and the fourth option, a rabble of independents supported by the boys.

“It’s like a three-digit lock on a briefcase. One digit is the party, the other is the candidate’s personal vote bank and the third is the grouping and dharra. Only when the three are aligned does the briefcase open.

“Development can make you lose an election, if you haven’t done any, but on its own it’s not enough to ensure victory.”

So, a three-digit code for the three big parties, PML-N, PPP and PTI, and the fourth option, a rabble of independents supported by the boys. The most complicated constituencies quite obviously will be the four-way fights.

Possible for several reasons — infighting causing the usual two groups in constituencies to subdivide; the exit of a habitual winner drawing in new aspirants; an intensely politicised constituency electorate — they’re relatively rare.

Usually some kind of deal is reached and the panel — the MNA candidate plus his wings, usually two MPA seats — is adjusted to prevent everyone fighting everyone. Expenses can get out of control in multi-candidate constituencies, so they tend to work out something among themselves.

Plus, you can’t really see the PTI candidate and the boys’ independent going to toe-to-toe. A firm hand will likely be placed on the shoulder of one of the two when the time comes, a sign to stand down for the greater good.

Three-way fights are generally more common and may be even more so this time around. Three consecutive on-time elections, two full-term parliaments, the centre changing hands thrice, all major players with provincial governments.

That’s a lot of politics and a lot of time for new entrants to become legitimate contenders.

Three big candidates, three big parties, three dharras/groupings — it could give all three a sniff. The more rural the constituency, the less the party matters and the more the candidate and grouping do. The more urban the constituency, the opposite is true.

Say, they snatch away Nawaz’s winning candidates. That still leaves him with the party vote. The party vote can also be suppressed, but it would need brute force and polling-day shadiness. That could be costly in other ways.

So, run a smart campaign, combine the ouster narrative with Shahbaz’s goodwill among the people and a few extra seats could be eked out here and there by the PML-N — even after major defections.

For the PPP, a three-way fight is probably its best bet, especially in Punjab. If Zardari plays his cards right, most of the PPP candidates will be left alone and there will be minimal interference in the party’s campaign.

Last time around, Zardari’s occupancy of the presidency took him out of the campaign equation and Bilawal was kept far away from potential danger. Now, a more vigorous campaign by father and son could bring back, say, a baseline 20k PPP voters in quite a few places.

Layer on top of that candidates with constituency profiles and groupings to get out the vote, and the PPP could marginally improve on its collapse outside Sindh in 2013.

But it’s the PTI that could be the biggest winner in three-way fights. The party voter, the guy drawn to Imran’s basic message, is spread thin and wide across many constituencies. By itself, the PTI party vote won’t be enough.

But a favourable electoral landscape and the pick of candidates could hand PTI the three-digit codes it needs to unlock the electoral briefcases in constituency after constituency.

And in two-way fights, the likely scenario in a significant number of constituencies, the PTI could be stronger still if the opponent is the N-League. The rabble of independents could be used to chip away at the PML-N vote, bringing its candidates into range for a takedown by PTI.

Two-, three- or four-way contests, it will be an almighty struggle. For everyone.

May the least-worst man win.

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