ISLAMABAD     -   With the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) aggressively defending its throne and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) desperate to avenge its April 2022 defeat in the Punjab Assembly, a do-or-die battle is on the cards in the populous province of the country.

The two politically rival parties would be grappling with each other again but this time out of the House in the most crucial polls on 20 seats of the Punjab Assembly. Punjab continued to witness bizarre yet interesting political developments in the recent weeks. Some atypical chapters have been added to the political and parliamentary history of the country. Political crisis, to which the country is no stranger, touched new heights in recent days as things seemingly turned personal instead of being political. Ego of the politicians and intolerance resulted in acrimony and hostility. Still, one can expect more in the coming days as the climax of the political drama is yet to come.

The PTI had lost its razor-thin majority in the Punjab Assembly in April after 25 of its lawmakers including five elected on the reserved seats sided with its rival, the PML-N, in the election for Punjab chief minister. The PTI is hoping to come back to power in the province by winning a majority of the seats in the by-polls. On the other side, the PML-N needs a big win to ensure that its newly-appointed chief minister, Hamza Shehbaz, retains his seat of power. So, the July 17 by-polls are a litmus test of the popularity of both the PTI and the ruling-PML-N and also crucial to rule the country’s most populous and politically important province.

Currently, the PML-N is in the government with almost no majority and a slighter change in the number of seats in the House may push it out of power. The results of the by-elections would define the course of future politics in the country as formation of the PTI government in the province may pave the way for new elections as well.

A new round of political activity — more aggressive and harsher — is likely to begin after the July 17 by-polls and the power game is likely to continue till the drop scene; announcement of new elections in the country. Following the results, the political situation in Punjab may take sudden turns. Two different scenarios can develop; one that PML-N gains majority of the seats in the by-elections and consolidates its position in the province and the other may lead to change of the provincial government for which the PTI is quite hopeful.

The PML-N and the PTI are using all the available energies and resources to win the by-elections. The PTI’s voter is charged as the party is touching new heights of popularity but on the other hand, the PML-N is in power in the province and has an edge of having the administration under its control.

Currently, the PML-N is in power with 177 seats while the opposition comprising PTI, PML-Q and one independent jointly make it 169 in the House. Twenty-five seats including 5 reserved for women and minorities are lying vacant at the moment.

So, what will politics of the future look like after July 17? The PTI alliance, if it gets a majority of the seats, would try to form its government in the province. The question is whether the PML-N would let them do that by not dissolving the provincial assembly. If yes, the question is who will be able enough in the PML-N government to stop the expected PTI long march at the capital city’s gates; Faizabad interchange. If the long march reaches close to the Red Zone, how many days the coalition government of the PDM may survive remains a big question. So, the PML-N will have to think a hundred times before giving PTI an opportunity to form its government in the province. It would also be interesting to note who comes as the candidate for chief minister slot from the PTI; Ch. Pervez Elahi or Zain Qureshi, scion of PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi who is also contesting for a provincial assembly seat from Multan in the by-elections. According to the party sources, Shah Mahmood Qureshi was the top aspirant for the slot in 2018 but he could not win the provincial assembly seat from his hometown.

Another interesting scenario may develop in case Zain Qureshi wins the by-election. He has resigned from the National Assembly seat though his resignation has not been accepted by the Speaker yet. Technically speaking, he will have to surrender the national assembly seat before taking oath as an MPA. As per the party directions, Zain wouldn’t be willing to appear before the Speaker for confirmation of his resignation and it will be the speaker to decide whether his resignation has been accepted under the circumstances and if he can take oath as an MPA. A deadlock is likely on the issue given the rivalry between the two sides.

The PTI leadership is on record that the party, if comes into power in the province again, would dissolve the provincial assembly to pave way for the new elections. Before that, even the PML-N may take a decision also to dissolve the assembly to not let the PTI form its government in the province.

It seems PTI Chairman Imran Khan also sees an opportunity to have fresh elections by coming into a position of forming its government in the province as he sits almost idle for security to his long march against possible use of force by the government. Anyhow, Imran Khan has formally started party candidates’ campaign by addressing the party workers in Lahore yesterday. The confrontation between the government and the opposition is most likely to continue until the outcome of the ballot that would determine whether the PML-N governments will stay in power or not. In the meantime, the petitions challenging Hamza Shehbaz’s election as chief minister Punjab are likely to proceed with no decision till the July 17 by-polls.