WE are now in the home stretch. This past week saw a flurry of political activity as parties started to dig in and brace for their final showdown, scheduled for next Thursday. Though we had not seen the same level of feverish campaigning that usually precedes general elections in Pakistan, there was some welcome improvement over the last few weeks, even if it has seemed at times that it is just two parties swapping the limelight between them. The PTI, the third main contender, remains absent from TV screens. There has been very little it has been allowed to do, and falsas would have been out of the question with the state trying to suppress it. The smaller parties, too, seem to have largely avoided expending much time or effort on elections 2024. This lack of enthusiasm has left the polls looking like a three-way fight albeit one in which one of the main contenders has been handicapped.
How will the results shape up? It is anyone`s guess. A number of factors are in play, going for and against each party. The PML-N and PPP look strong on paper. Their traditional networks within the zaat-biradari system and the state apparatus are active. The state is keeping the PTI in check. The two can also campaign freely: they may put up banners, organise corner meetings, hold falsas, get TV airtime and, most importantly, seek votes with the help of recognised poll symbols. The PML-N enjoys the further advantage of being perceived as the `favoured` party, which is expected to boost its prospects in areas where thana-katcheri politics rule the day. The PTI, meanwhile, is banking mainly on public sympathy to turn the tide. It is tapping into public discontent against the status quo and hoping the youth vote can swing the election in its favour.
A lot will also depend on voter turnout: a high turnout is expected to favour the PTI. Will it be able to get its voters out? How each party manages election day activities will also matter.
Can they mobilise and ferry enough voters to the booths? Can polling agents protect their candidates` votes during the counting process? Given how vitiated the pre-poll process has been, should we expect a changed atmosphere on polling day? There is a lot riding on these elections, and the path to power, as ever, lies through Punjab. Will we see a new victor emerge? The PML-N is looking to break out of central Punjab and make inroads in the north and south. The PPP is hoping to regain the ground it lost a decade ago. And the PTI is refusing to back out of the fight. It promises to be a contest that will be remembered for a long time.