Polls 2023: It boils down to PML-N vs PTI

Bilal I Gilani
Logos of PTI and PML-N. Photos: Geo.tv/file
Logos of PTI and PML-N. Photos: Geo.tv/file

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently launched campaign 2023 from Mandi Bahauddin and indicated he would be looking after the election preparation for 2023 within the party himself. Similar indications and preparations can be seen to be taking off in other political parties.

The time is ripe as a series of local government elections has already warmed up the election machinery within the political parties. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is already seeing electioneering and the aftermath of hotly contested local government elections which have thrown up lots of surprises. A similar show is expected in May 2023 when Punjab, the country’s largest province, will see an electoral contest for close to 100,000 seats.

What is the public mood like at the start of the campaign? Who are the favourites in the upcoming elections? What would motivate and demotivate the electorate in the coming months to side with or go against a political party. How have the past four years affected the popularity of the two main rivals: PTI and PML-N?

During December 2021 and January 2022, Gallup Pakistan conducted a nationally representative survey of over 5000 men and women in almost 130 districts, covering both urban and rural areas as well as representative strata of society. The report – Public Pulse Report – has generated controversy and healthy debate. What are the key findings of this survey and how can we use these numbers to judge the mood of the public?

First, there are strong indications that Nawaz Sharif is re-emerging as a popular choice with a high approval rating in all provinces of the country. With a popularity rate of 58 percent in Punjab, 46 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and 51 percent in Sindh, Nawaz Sharif is leading the popularity rating among leaders. Second, is Shahbaz Sharif, a two-time chief minister and current president of the PML-N (he has 51 percent approval rating), followed by Imran Khan , the current PM, at 36 percent.

The important point here is not the fall in Imran Khan’s rating (polls in 2018, 2020 showed 40 percent and 30 percent approval rating, which is not very different from his current rating at 36 percent). The real change in the electoral contest is happening because the Sharifs are regaining their lost image in the eyes of the electorate. Nawaz Sharif had a popularity rating of a mere 28 percent in December 2018 which now stands at almost 55 percent; a similar rise has been seen for Shahbaz Sharif (from 34 percent to 51 percent).

Prior to the 2018 elections, the Sharifs enjoyed similar ratings as we see now and it seems the three charges of corruption, unpatriotism and not being good enough Muslims (the controversy which led to the rise of the TLP) seem to be receding into the background. Moreover, in the PML-N’s stronghold of Punjab (the PML-N received over 90 percent of its votes in 2018 from Punjab alone), the odd choice of CM Buzdar and the current provincial government’s lackluster performance – especially when juxtaposed with very publicly active Shahbaz Sharif – has been continuously eroding the vote base from the PTI back to the PML-N.

Second, the public pulse shows that the real contest still remains between the PTI and the PML-N and that the space for a third party (the PPP) for the national theatre of politics is limited. The survey findings show that Bilawal Bhutto, despite having gained so much attention over the past three years, seems to be stuck at a 28 percent approval rating in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 public opinion polls. The survey finds a minor rise in his popularity in Punjab: from 18 percent in December 2018 to 24 percent in January 2022. The PPP’s efforts to regain its national character and make a dent in the public imagination again in Punjab seems to be having limited success as of now. Will the PPP be able to outgrow its self-chosen exile as a primarily Sindh-centered party in the 2023 election? The report shows a rather bleak outlook. However, all political forecasts are forecasts in the end and it is politicians who are able to change the weather and not the pollsters.

Lastly, the PTI is still a formidable political force and any estimates or predictions of its precipitous fizzling out (some have likened 2023 to be a watershed moment for the PTI like 2018 was for the PML-Q in 2013 and 2018) are perhaps misplaced. Despite a very tumultuous four years in power, skyrocketing inflation (one of the highest in 70 years of the country), the only negative GDP growth being recorded since 1952 and a series of scandals ranging from wheat, sugar, urea and other basic commodities, the PTI is the second largest political entity in the country, being a clear runner-up in KP, and number two in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan in terms of voting intentions.

In all five electoral contests (four provincial and one national), the PTI is either at the top or a second in all the five electoral contests. Such a national character of its political base is unrivaled by any political party currently and not witnessed in recent history. Moreover, the PTI has an ideological voter at the core who is unfazed by the current performance and willing to give further chance to the party (the untested, new-force image of the party is diluted but still alive). Rival political parties till now have been unable to offer a new alternative discourse or narrative which could woo the PTI voters away. Inflation and economy are not the only drivers of the electoral calculus in Pakistan.

Like the weather, politics is never constant and is open to change. Politicians are masters of changing the narrative and resetting the political agenda. Between now and the elections in 2023, there will be ample room for resetting the political weather and changing the political pulse in the country. During this time ,one would only hope that our politicians follow the advice of Walter Lipman: “Before you can begin to think about politics at all, you have to abandon the notion that there is a war between good men and bad men’.

I and many other citizens hope that the campaign 2023 is not based on a war between good and bad but a debate among equals on ideals and aspirations. May the best man or woman be chosen among all the good people of this country.

The writer is the executive director of a data analytics company, and a heavy user of national statistics data.

Originally published in The News