Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab holds the lion’s share of seats in the national assembly: 141 out of 272.

To win Wednesday’s elections, one has to win a majority in Punjab province, say analysts. “For a party to win in the national elections, it has to win in the Punjab,” says an observer.

Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party has seen Punjab as its home base. In the past, the party has secured power based on its performance in Punjab. Critics have always painted the PML-N as a Punjab party and not as a national party.

Whenever the PML-N won most seats in Punjab, it went on to form the government, both in 1990 and in 1997.

In 2008, the party secured 69 seats, almost all from Punjab. But that year, the PPP won more seats and went on to form the government at the centre.

Many observers say that Punjab voted overwhelmingly in that year for the PPP as a sympathy vote for Benazir Bhutto, who had been killed a year earlier while on the campaign trail. But in 2013, the PML-N was back and the party secured 128 seats in parliament, almost all from Punjab.

This year, neither would it be smooth sailing for the PML-N nor will its main opposition come from the PPP. Thanks to what some analysts describe as pre-poll electoral engineering, the PTI has emerged as Nawaz Sharif’s major opponent in Punjab. Over the past few years and more so in 2018, a number of electables have defected from the PML-N to the PTI.

PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah blames the ISI for engineering these defections. But that is just one side of the story, say analysts. For its part, the PML-N focused much of its development projects in central Punjab where the bulk of its support comes from. Southern Punjab, also known as the Sairaiki belt, remained largely ignored because it has traditionally voted for the PPP.

“Overnight the tables have turned. To give credit to the PTI, it has focused on areas where the PML-N popularity was waning. In some instances, the popular candidates have been bought over. In others, owing to the decline in popularity of the PML-N, a direct challenge has been mounted,” says analyst Ghazi Salahuddin. A combination of both tactics could well mean that the PML-N would sufffer crippling losses in Punjab.

By dislodging PML-N from the Punjab, the PTI will have succeeded in sweeping the carpet from under the feet of Sharif, say some observers.

Unlike the PML-N, the PTI has support in KP and is expected to win a sprinkling of seats in Sindh, including Karachi, and in Balochstan. “This will give it the legitimacy and the edge,” says Salahuddin.

In many ways, the PML-N has seen the writing on the wall.

The party has accepted that Punjab may not be their in 2018. At the same time, the popularity of former chief minister Shehbaz Sharif may spring a few surprises. He is possibly the most popular chief minister the province has seen in many years. For most political analysts, Punjab could swing either way. And whichever party wins in Punjab has the best chance at ruling the centre.

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