SOME wins, some losses, the PML-N on top, PTI underlining its status as a credible political force, the PPP and ANP scoring victories in Punjab and KP respectively that have pulled them back from political oblivion — Thursday’s by-elections produced the expected grab bag of results. With the by-elections coming so soon after the general election, they can hardly be interpreted as the electorate’s view on the performance of the national and provincial governments. In any case, by-elections are notoriously difficult to interpret, even if held well into an assembly’s term: negative voter opinion on a government’s performance is usually countered by the fact that by-elections are held on a political government’s watch, meaning the state apparatus is often tilted in the government’s favour.

The large number of by-elections did though underline some severe provincial differences. Consider how while rural Sindh was electing a woman to a National Assembly seat, the uber-conservative belt of KP was yet again barring women from voting. While undoubtedly a localised affair in which all political parties and the local administration play their part, the time has come to take forceful punitive measures and also work out a preventive scheme for future elections. In matters of conservative culture, it can’t simply be left at beefing up security outside women’s polling stations. What’s needed is a proactive approach that works with local community leaders and politicians to educate them on women’s rights and make them aware of sanctions that may be imposed if there is a repeat at the next election. But the matter is not one for the state alone to enforce compliance with; why do the political parties themselves tolerate such practices? The obvious explanation is that in a highly competitive political environment, no party wants to alienate its local support base by sanctioning or suspending party members and candidates who try and keep women out of the voting process. But surely what may be difficult to achieve in isolation for the various parties, it is possible to do from a joint platform. Assemblies that have a significant number of female legislators can surely lead from the front on a cross-party basis.

Lost in the ‘who-won, who-lost’ frenzy was another important point: why do election laws permit candidates to contest more than one seat in a general election, forcing so many costly and time-wasting by-polls? Given that most party heads have at some stage contested multiple seats, the parties would prefer to remain quiet on this matter. But it is a waste of money, time and resources.

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