Seldom in history has a by-election become so important that it could determine not just the future trajectory of a government or a state but also a country. The by-election to 20 seats in Pakistan’s Punjab Provincial Assembly on Sunday, 17 July, is one such election. The outcome will decide the fate of not only the precariously placed provincial government headed by Hamza Shahbaz but also that of the federal government headed by his father Shahbaz Sharif.

Even more critically, the election result will determine the political future of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), its main adversary Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), and the most powerful political player – the Pakistan Army. As if this were not enough, the economy could be severely buffeted by the election result, even brought down by it. In the event, Pakistan could be staring at a situation of becoming a Sri Lanka on steroids. Meanwhile, there are very significant sideshows that will give an indication of the direction in which politics is moving, not the least of which will be the performance of the Barelvi Islamist radical political party Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

Unlike normal elections in which deciding who won and who lost is easy, deciding the winner of the by-elections on 17 July will be complicated. Hamza can easily retain his slender majority if the 20 seats are evenly divided between PML-N and PTI — he needs only 9. Anything less, and it’s curtains for him. If Hamza goes, and the PTI gains control of Punjab, there will be total political paralysis. Simply put, if Hamza goes, then his father will not be able to survive. If Shahbaz and the current dispensation go, then it will mean the end of Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and his cabal. Alongside, the IMF programme could be in jeopardy and with it maybe even Pakistan’s economy itself.

But managing to keep a slender majority won’t nearly be enough for Hamza and PML-N. Unless the PML-N wins around 15 seats, it will still be seen as a defeat for the ruling party and a victory for the PTI, which is breathing down the neck of the PML-N and the military. Imran Khan had been written off after he lost the no-confidence vote and was booted out of office in April last. A strong showing — 8-10 seats — will give an impression that he has not only recovered lost political ground but is all set to capture power. What is more, he will be able to make a renewed push for his demand for an early general election which otherwise is scheduled for October or November 2023. The political situation could quickly swing in his favor and force an early election, something Pakistan cannot afford. Given the state of the economy, an election at this stage will put the entire administrative machinery and government in a state of limbo for around three months, during which the economy could pass the point of no return.

But even if Imran Khan manages to win 4-5 seats, he is unlikely to admit defeat. He has tailored his political narrative in such a way that if he loses he will blame it on rigging, misuse of administrative and political power, use of money and muscle power, and of course the ‘invisible’ hand of the ‘Invisible Soldiers Inc.’ or the infamous ISI and the Pakistan Army.

Imran of course knows how elections are stolen — after all, he ‘won’ in 2018 using exactly the dirty tricks that he is now blaming his opponents for using. The thing is that even if the election is completely transparent and clean, Imran Khan and his cult will still not show the grace of accepting the result and will most likely take to the streets. On the other hand, if he wins, then of course he will go on the warpath against both the incumbent government and Army top brass and put them on the mat. In other words, if he gets 10 or more seats, he will be unstoppable and uncontrollable, something that neither the Army nor Imran’s opponents and not even important global players want.

For the PML-N a loss will mean a huge setback. After getting rid of Imran Khan, the PML-N has been forced to make some really tough decisions — steep hike in fuel prices, interest rates, sharp fall in the value of the rupee, impending hikes in gas and electricity prices — which have fuelled inflation and broken the backs of ordinary folk. All the public anger against the feckless, even disastrous handling of the economy by the utterly incompetent Imran regime, is now being directed against the PML-N.

While these tough decisions aimed at restoring the suspended IMF programme might have warded off the immediate threat of default, it has caused enormous hardships. If despite this the PML-N manages to romp home, then it will be a huge victory and will be seen as an endorsement of the economic management of the Shahbaz government.

But if the PML-N loses, it could mean an end to the efforts to put the economy back on the rails. The message that will go across is saving the economy will exact an unaffordable political cost that no politician will be ready to pay. Consequently, the breathing space that has been gained by frenetic efforts of the government and the Army chief going around the world with a begging bowl — seeking funds and concessional oil from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, gas on deferred payment from Qatar and billions in Balance of Payments support from China — could go up in smoke.

There will be a temptation to do patchwork ‘reform’ and avoid structural reforms. Whether or not the IMF turns a blind eye to this backtracking remains to be seen. The IMF’s stance could in part be influenced by international geopolitics which could go against Pakistan given the strident anti-Americanism and anti-West, pro-Russia, pro-Islamist rhetoric of Imran Khan. But even if the IMF was to cut slack for slippages in reforms, the Pakistan economy could be once again facing default in a year or two.

On paper, the edge is with the PML-N. Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam, are arguably the most popular politicians in Punjab. The party is drawing impressive crowds in its rallies. But then so is Imran Khan drawing huge crowds in his whistle-stop campaign in Punjab. The question is how much will the crowd turnout translate into votes. The record of the PML-N, which has formidable party machinery, is much better in converting crowds into votes.

Compared to Imran or his dummy former Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif enjoys the reputation of being a fine administrator even though he isn’t exactly a very likeable, much less a charismatic leader. Ditto with Hamza. The fact that the PML-N is in government gives it an advantage. The support of all the coalition partners also gives an edge to the PML-N. The elections are likely to be three-cornered contests. Political analysts are waiting to see how the TLP performs. Will this radical Barelvi party cut into PML-N votes or will it damage PTI? Will it carve a new religious vote bank?

Imran has other problems as well. Apart from no longer enjoying the support of the military, he has also lost the support of the money-bags (ATMs as they were called in Pakistani political parlance) who had backed him. Many of the ‘electables’ — locally influential political persons — who had been corralled by the military to join Imran in 2018, have deserted him. But the most important advantage that the PML-N enjoys is that it no longer faces a hostile military establishment. The grapevine is that the military is divided politically between those who back Imran and those who loathe Imran. There is a sense that given what is at stake — the political and economic stability of the state and country, and given the Frankenstein’s monster that Imran has turned out to be — the military will lean in favour of PMLN.

Although the military has vowed that it will remain neutral and not interfere in the political process, only the most naïve will take this at face value. The last time the military allowed a completely free and fair election, Bangladesh happened. It is unlikely that the military will allow another such cataclysmic political outcome, which could repeat if Imran wins or even if the PML-N doesn’t win handsomely. The smart money is therefore on the PML-N. What remains to be seen is whether Imran Khan’s political balloon gets punctured on 17 July and his party (not his cult) implodes; or, will Imran, regardless of whether he wins or loses, go on the warpath to force an early election?