IT was never going to be great, but it didn’t have to be this bad: lacklustre Shahbaz, preoccupied Imran, embattled Zardari and sidelined Nawaz. Maybe the final weeks will bring something better.
So far, it’s been pretty dire.
Shahbaz has been the worst. And just as bad is that we’ve seen all of this before. In 2013, when he thought he may get elevated to Islamabad to fix electricity en route to being PM candidate in 2018, he gave the national campaigning business a whirl.
It ended in embarrassment.
It’s obvious Shahbaz isn’t comfortable in front of crowds. More suited for him are the ranks of bureaucrats and meetings chaired. Where his words are dutifully noted and semi-translated into the action he demands.
But it is possible to learn. Bilawal has done it and, probably more galling for Shahbaz, Maryam has too. They’ve figured out politics is performance art, at least the campaigning part of it.
You have to know the people and give them something they want. Shahbaz on the campaign trail has two modes: arms akimbo, pointless yelling and pounding of the lectern or oily, cheesy sucking up.
But it’s something more.
The anti-PPP alliance in Sindh has either been carefully cultivated to limit the PPP’s dominance or 10 years of epic misrule have finally started to catch up with the party.
To be a leader, to be perceived as a leader, you have to be a bit brash, ready to fight, willing to take on and take down enemies. Shahbaz is the schoolteacher who talks about theoretical stuff and just seems to want everyone to get along.
This isn’t a place for everyone getting along.
What Shahbaz lacks is a perceived will to fight. To stand up for something, for himself and his own. It was one thing to be beaten into second place by his elder brother. That can be excused on cultural grounds, familial roles and his brother’s political stature.
But then he began to fall behind his niece in the family pecking order. And at no point has he shown any appetite, willingness or inclination to challenge the boys, no matter the indignities heaped on the family.
Punjab may want its favourite son and his family to get along with its strongest institution, but not if it means a contender for power, the younger brother, incapable of standing up for himself against anyone — his niece, the boys, the party’s enemies and rivals.
Shahbaz has to adjust — and fast.
Imran’s problem has been more straightforward: Imran. Do the religious thing, get your spiritual ducks in a row, that’s not a problem. It may make for a few lurid headlines, but what’s a few more in a career full of them?
The problem is Imran hasn’t been able to get serious. He just isn’t interested in the business of running a party and managing competing interest groups. The tension between the electables and the originals has been baked into the PTI’s politics since 2013.
The tension can be managed, but not eliminated.
But those tensions are necessarily at their worst around ticket distribution. So to make ticket distribution work and to make it stick, you need to do plenty of ego massaging, hand holding and patient listening.
Almost as important as placating those who have lost out is to keep the winners from looking too smug and elated. Imran isn’t interested in either job. And the cult of the PTI doesn’t allow for enough unquestioning obedience to make dissent melt away quickly.
It’s been very messy.
Imran has managed to be in the peculiar scenario where his party is probably still in a relatively strong position, but neither he nor the party look like winners or even front-runners yet.
A party winning, or coming close to winning, despite itself and its leader? Surely not.
Toiling, though more in the shadows, has been Zardari too. In 2013, his political wiliness was exposed in the end to be empty grandstanding. Having tied up interior Sindh, he was going to pick up seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and south Punjab and a smattering in the rest of Punjab.
Point men were appointed in the different regions to shell out money, marshal the PPP vote and find winning constituency coalitions. It failed spectacularly; only pressure on the PPP from militants saving the party from having to own an utter rout.
This time, Zardari was supposed to lock down all of Sindh. The lack of an organised opposition in interior Sindh was going to sweep the PPP to victory there. And the disarray in the MQM in Karachi was supposed to allow the PPP to sneak in a bunch of seats.
But there’s trouble in PPP land.
Whether by design or the PPP’s incompetence, interior Sindh doesn’t look like it’s going to be the walkover the PPP would have hoped for. And the PPP’s big hopes in Karachi could turn out to be the smallest of gains in the end.
Depending on who you ask, the anti-PPP alliance in Sindh has either been carefully cultivated to limit the PPP’s dominance or 10 years of epic misrule have finally started to catch up with the PPP.
Either way, it’s not going to be a stroll to the finish line for the PPP.
Maybe the final 25 days will bring some real excitement and electoral competitiveness. The big unknown right now is Nawaz. Is Nawaz out of the country both because of the situation in London and because Shahbaz has asked he be given space?
If the latter is partly the reason, will Shahbaz’s inability to catch electoral fire bring Nawaz back into the electoral arena?
For the election’s sake, let’s hope the big four get their acts together — and soon.