POLITICAL leaders are already thinking about the next general election even though it is two years away. But then strategies are crafted and preparations made way ahead of time. Political parties will in any case be in election mode in a year’s time. The stakes are high for all sides in a politically fraught environment in which confrontation politics continues to be the dominant dynamic.

Even as efforts are underway to revive the moribund opposition alliance — PDM — there is an unstated acceptance among opposition parties that that there is little point expending political capital in trying to unseat the government, which is unlikely to succeed anyway. Far better to conserve and focus energies on the election. This doesn’t mean the opposition will relent on efforts to mount pressure on the government and subject it to fierce criticism. That campaign will intensify all the way to the polls, as will the government’s attempts to vilify and discredit its opponents. The upcoming budget session is expected to be stormy and likely to see bitter clashes in parliament.

Both the ruling party and its political competitors face imposing challenges ahead. For the PTI government the challenge is perhaps greater. Because even at the peak of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s popularity his party failed to secure a majority in the last election and had to forge a coalition with a motley group of parties and independents to form the government. For this it also needed decisive help from the establishment. In Punjab its government rested — and still rests — on a wafer-thin majority.

In any case, an incumbent party always faces an uphill task not least because public expectations almost always outpace government delivery. On performance, the PTI government hasn’t exactly lived up to popular hopes including those of its own political base. True that the pandemic magnified challenges and threw the government off course, like its counterparts across the world. But voters are unforgiving and at election time their choices are mainly shaped by the ruling party’s economic record and how it has affected their economic well-being. Notwithstanding its claims to have steered the economy towards stability the exponentially rising cost of living has been a key factor for growing public disenchantment with the PTI government. This and the overall lack of governance have contributed to the political setbacks faced by the party in successive national and provincial by-elections. Usually, the incumbent party has an advantage in by-elections. But PTI has lost virtually every by-election, and on some seats fared particularly poorly. In the recent Karachi by-election, it came fifth on a seat it had previously won.

The ruling party is also in a state of organisational dysfunction and facing significant discontent among its parliamentary members both at the centre and Punjab. This was dramatically exposed by the sequence of events that led to an informal group forming around Jahangir Tareen. Quite apart from these legislators’ support for a capable political leader who played a pivotal role in the party’s electoral success and is seen to be a victim of trumped-up charges, they also have their own set of grievances. But this is only the latest expression of disaffection in a party also afflicted by in-fighting.

Some of the disgruntlement among party backbenchers is the result of the lack of attention from the PM, who rarely shows up in parliament. But it is also related to the weak Punjab leadership and its inability to address their concerns. This in turn points to a bigger problem for the party’s prospects down the road — the make-or-break province led by an uninspiring figure bereft of the political management skills needed to make the party ‘fighting fit’ for elections. If this leadership takes the party to the polls in the battleground province that can cost it heavily especially as help from the establishment may not be forthcoming this time. The fact thatthe political environment has changed and the public mood has shifted will impose limits on such ‘help’.

For the party that has maintained its dominant position in Punjab and arguably has the largest vote bank there, PML-N also confronts challenges it needs to address before getting into election mode. The most significant is to reconcile the ‘divide within’ between two divergent approaches and narratives and also choose whether it wants to pursue a confrontational or conciliatory approach towards the establishment. It has to resolve the dilemma that while its ‘electables’ prefer an accommodating stance voiced by Shehbaz Sharif its voters respond to the hawkish one articulated by Maryam Nawaz, a crowd-puller who has given the party a populist aura. If confusion continues on this count, it would be costly for a party otherwise adept at constituency politics.

Factionalism is another serious problem. This continues to sap its organisational cohesiveness and may have contributed to the fact that in by-elections its candidates won by smaller majorities with rivals polling more votes than previously. As much of Punjab politics still revolves around biradaris, unless the party contains biradari-based factionalism, in-fighting would open the way for rivals to reap the electoral advantage with PTI as the main beneficiary.

The PPP has to decide whether, as in the last election, it wants to focus principally on its traditional stronghold in rural Sindh to retain control of the province, and south Punjab, or have a countrywide approach. In the past it has predicated its strategy on local seat adjustments beyond Sindh which yielded limited results. But recent organisational changes in central Punjab after the Khushab by-election setback may leave the party in a weaker position in a region where the party lost many local influentials to PTI in the last election and then was wiped out there.

Beyond each party’s challenges and choices, two interrelated trends are likely to continue: a regionalised outcome, with different parties forming governments in the provinces and a coalition government at the centre. That has wider implications for governance but in the near term it implies that political leaders will need to reach out to others ahead of time to forge alliances or understandings to enhance their chances of forming a coalition.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2021