Some two years after assuming the role of prime minister-in-waiting, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's opposition leader, finds himself on the defensive during a string of by-elections that has exposed his party's shortcomings. Mr Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League party, had positioned himself as the country's next head of government after withdrawing from a coalition government formed after general elections in February 2008.
His relationship with Asif Ali Zardari, the president and head of the Pakistan People's Party, which won the most seats in the elections, has since soured, with Mr Sharif taking a moralistic stance on political issues as part of a campaign to force the president to surrender many of his constitutional powers, although he has held back from calling on the president to step down. Until January, it had appeared that Mr Sharif held all the aces and could, with a single call for public protests, bring the government to its knees, as he had done in March 2009 by backing a campaign to reinstate the country's maverick chief justice.
However, for all the political noise generated by the Muslim League, Mr Sharif has been unable to convert rhetoric into votes outside his power base in central Punjab province. That became obvious in three by-elections held in the insurgency-wracked North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in January and February. The Muslim League failed to mount notable challenges in two of the contested seats in the NWFP, with candidates for the Awami National Party and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) party easily retaining constituencies in Swat and Lakki Marwat respectively.
Those victories maintained the majority in the NWFP provincial assembly for a coalition government formed by the two parties with the support of Mr Zardari's PPP. The three parties are also coalition partners in the federal government. The results in both constituencies were widely expected because both had been vacated due to the death of the incumbents, with sympathy votes ensuring the eventual outcome.
The same criteria might well have been expected to apply in the by-election for a National Assembly seat in Mansehra, a district of the NWFP with a largely non-Pashtun population and where Punjab-based parties like Mr Sharif's Muslim League have historically dominated. However, when the results were declared on February 1, the Muslim League trailed in a distant third to the victorious JUI candidate and faired only marginally better than the PPP, despite the deep unpopularity of Mr Zardari, its chief.
It was a poignant moment because the JUI win translated into a two-seat swing in favour of the governing coalition in the National Assembly, as well as depriving Mr Sharif of one of the handful of seats he holds in the three provinces aside of Punjab. The Muslim League runs the government in Punjab, but is dependent on the support of the PPP to maintain its majority in the provincial assembly. As poignant was that the loss of the Mansehra seat was largely attributable to poor judgment by Mr Sharif.
Instead of awarding his party's ticket to the eldest offspring of the deceased member, the Muslim League upset constituents by fielding a candidate whose primary qualification was being the brother of Mr Sharif's son-in-law. Similarly, Mr Sharif failed to cash in on his personal popularity by not appearing in the constituency during the by-election campaign - something that Imran Khan, a cricketer turned politician, did to great effect, both in Mansehra and Swat, where his candidates performed relatively well on the back of votes that would otherwise probably have been cast for the Muslim League.
The string of by-elections has since moved south to Punjab, where the Muslim League has been caught off guard by the potency of campaigns mounted by its rivals, all of them former heavy hitters in the party who joined a rival faction of the Muslim League patronised by Pervez Musharraf while he was president and Mr Sharif was in exile in Saudi Arabia. Mr Sharif's candidate easily triumphed in the by-election for a Rawalpindi constituency of the National Assembly, but the campaign was marred by an armed attack on the opposing candidate, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a former minister of information, in which four of his bodyguards were killed.
The PPP did not field a candidate, claiming it was a reconciliatory gesture towards Mr Sharif's party, but behind the scenes its activists pushed PPP voters to vote for Mr Ahmed. That raised questions about the conduct of the Punjab government, which is led by Mr Sharif's younger brother, but not as many as complaints by members of the rival Muslim League faction that the provincial law minister had been publicly courting the support of a militant Sunni organisation for a Punjab provincial assembly by-election in Jhang, an area plagued by sectarian murders.
The complaint has caused a national furore and added a Sunni sectarian layer to the characterisation of Mr Sharif's party as Punjabi chauvinist. Those are unwanted credentials the opposition leader will find difficult to disown as the by-elections move to southern Sindh province, the PPP's stronghold, and western Balochistan province, where anti-Punjabi hatred is fuelling a nationalist insurgency.