Kulsoom Nawaz’s win in the NA-120 by-elections has made one thing clear: PML-N’s support-base is not only intact, it is also determined to fight for its electoral preferences. Although the NA-120 win was expected for the ruling party, it will send a message across Punjab that Nawaz Sharif’s core support is not leaving his side in his hour of crisis. This should discourage any potential electables waiting for signals from the establishment quarters to jump the ship in the 2018 general elections. For most voters, the perception of which party is likely to form the government is more important than ideology or past preference, and this win has given that signal in favour of the PML-N. Forces which scripted Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from the Prime Minster office could not foresee that he would gain such astonishing support from the public, and are paying the price for their miscalculation. A political party based on hodge-podge alliances of local elites is now turning into a populist movement, and its characteristically dull rallies are turning into electrifying events full of spontaneity. A previously opportunistic voter is anchoring itself with the party leadership. This exciting transformation, however, does not come without hazards. The new populist avatar of the party is making its old guard nervous. If Maryam Nawaz is the face of PML-N’s future, then Chaudhry Nisar represents all the stereotypes associated with the party’s stalwarts being conservative, pro-military, and belonging to the traditional elite. These electables have forged their constituencies through money, local alliances, and support from the establishment; and see no wisdom in rebelling against the powerful deep-state. They would prefer Nawaz Sharif to continue as a father figure for the party with real power embedded with someone like Shehbaz Sharif who can ensure good terms with the military. This approach might not be ambitious, but keeps the electables away from trouble as they enjoy influence in local politics. Much to the dismay of his companions, Nawaz Sharif is in no mood to step aside and is, in fact, aspiring to fight for his right to govern as the democratically elected head of the state. The unprecedented showering of public support he got during his journey from Islamabad to Lahore in August won’t let him sit and wait for his fate. He knows that he is the most popular leader of the country, and is not a fool to let such an outpouring of support to go waste. He means to get his share of the power he thinks he deserves, and if that requires taking on the establishment, so be it. Maryam Nawaz has emerged as the clear heir to this new philosophy and lead this brand of politics during the NA-120 by-election campaign. Both these schools of thought within the party are likely to continue working together, however uneasily, until the 2018 elections. Maryam Nawaz will keep mobilising the masses and the likes of Chaudhry Nisar will keep on urging Nawaz Sharif to mend fences with the establishment. However, the party will be forced to decide its future after the 2018 elections. Either the old-guard would take control and Nawaz Sharif will be side-lined, or Maryam Nawaz will emerge as the key decision-maker with Shehbaz Sharif taking the back seat. There is no room for a middle ground when stakes are so high and ideologies so divergent. If Maryam Nawaz is the face of PML-N’s future, then Chaudhry Nisar represents all the stereotypes associated with the party’s stalwarts being conservative, pro-military, and belonging to the traditional elite In either case, the party will look much different than what it does today. Under the old-guard, the party will resemble what PML-Q was during the Musharraf era. Bargaining potential of the electable local elite will increase, which would weaken the party’s cohesion, and thus the ability of top leadership to steer it away from status quo. The party will also lose interest in matters of national policy-making, especially in the domains of national security and foreign policy. This would be the perfect scenario for the establishment. With Maryam at the helm, on the other hand, the power of electable will diminish as she will rely on mass support to tilt the scales in her favour. A symbiotic relationship between lower-tier workers and top-level leadership will ensure that the local electable elite conforms to the party’s policies as it embraces itself for an inevitable collision with the establishment. The current organisational structure of the PML-N relying on biradri coalitions, however, will need a complete overhaul to manage the struggle for power, and this would probably be Maryam Nawaz’s biggest challenge. She will have to develop an inclusive organisational structure which systematically pulls party workers into leadership ranks, and is broad enough to cater to a diverse following. These workers will then reciprocate by providing street-level support to the party by organising rallies, protests, and other forms of public show of strength. Her experience with setting up an impressive and dedicated social media team will come handy for such reorganisation. The next year is indeed crucial for the PML-N as it goes through the most important phase of its lifetime. The road to gain control over the country’s affairs is perilous, and it will require an organised institutional response backed by electoral support from the masses to take on the mighty establishment. The extent to which the PML-N capitalises on the current crisis and transforms itself will determine the future of democratic rule in Pakistan. The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Cleveland State University. He can be reached at email@example.com. His twitter handle is @RamblingSufi Published in Daily Times, September 19th 2017.