THE by-polls on 40-odd seats on Aug 22 were to vindicate the general election results and by most accounts they were one of the fairest votes in the history of this country.
They provided parties with new possibilities. All of them gained something from the polls and each one should now be trying to carry the impetus from these by-elections and work it into some political capital. Some have been more successful than others towards achieving this objective.
The PML-N must have been most anxious to have the Aug 22 vote hailed as fair. Additionally, its win on a seat vacated by Imran Khan in Mianwali and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) surrender to the Awami National Party (ANP) of another seat that was easily clinched by the PTI chief in Peshawar in May must have given the N-League some satisfaction.
For the ANP, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour’s victory over PTI in NA-1 signalled some kind of a return to its position in the recent past as a party to contend with in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. ANP politicians were quick to use the occasion to resume the debate about the ‘pre-poll rigging’ which, they say, had contributed to their rout in May.
They certainly have a point — with better electioneering they could have won a few more seats in the May 2013 election than they were allowed to. But a lot many people have been quite indifferent to this line of argument.
The ANP as well as the PPP have been confronted with accusations of misrule and corruption during their term in power between 2008 and 2013.
The cruellest of remarks before the May general election had blamed both the ANP and PPP of using the militants’ threat to mask their own inability to reach out to the people they had ‘misgoverned’ for five years.
Now as in May the ANP and PTI were the main contenders in Peshawar and Bilour did enjoy open or tacit support of all those with reason to be upset with Imran Khan’s rise in Pakistani politics — which includes pretty much everyone outside the PTI with the exception of the Jamaat-i-Islami.
The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl’s backing of Bilour was a plus for him this time but that could not have cleansed the ANP of the misrule label after the party’s complete rejection in a general vote only 70 days earlier.
Clearly, along with other factors including the hurt the people in Peshawar must have felt at being ‘ditched’ by Imran the fact that the ANP was allowed a bit of a campaign this time did have an effect on the result.
If more proof was needed, the ANP’s improved showing justifies the reasoning that the redcaps as perhaps the PPP could have done a little better had they been given a level playing field in May. Despite its faults, the improvement in its profile by virtue of this victory promises to restore to the ANP’s home province a much-needed diversity.
Of the PPP’s past allies, the Mirpurkhas by-poll on Aug 22 provided the MQM with that special moment to widen the split with the debilitated Zardari camp and try and find a more assertive position for itself from a regional standpoint.
The MQM realises that an alliance with the PPP at this moment could cost it dearly in the midst of a new challenger in Karachi. The PTI, which has necessitated so many adjustments in Pakistani politics despite its struggles to maintain its own momentum, is an obvious threat to the MQM in parts if not the whole of Karachi.
Mirpurkhas set the MQM not only further apart from the PPP, but the conduct of the by-polls under military supervision also facilitated MQM leader Altaf Hussain’s quest for Karachi’s handover to the army. The logic was simple: only a force that can ensure free polls in a Sindh constituency can guarantee security in the troubled commercial capital of Pakistan.
The PPP, which looks so increasingly dependent on its Sindh core to pull it forward, was totally taken up by the MQM’s proposal to spare any time for some gainful elaboration on the victories of two of its candidates in Punjab.
This was Rabbani Khar’s defeat of Javed Dasti (who sought to build a little dynasty on a seat based on a tradition established by the once-common man Jamshed Dasti) on a national seat in Muzaffargarh and Khurram Wattoo’s recapture of some of the lost family territory in Okara.
Along with the Muzaffargarh win by the PPP against a candidate it was backing, the PML-N suffered two blows in two provincial D.G. Khan seats on Aug 22, with PTI the gainer in both cases. One of these provincial constituencies has been a traditional Gurchani bastion from where Shahbaz Sharif had himself contested successfully in May.
The denial of the PML-N ticket to a Gurchani was a major factor in the PML-N defeat here, but instead of celebrating their victory on this Shahbaz Sharif seat, the PTI cadres chose to concentrate on protesting alleged rigging by PML-N in a provincial constituency in Lahore.
This was an understandable move by the PTI when viewed in the context of Imran Khan’s promise of a campaign against alleged rigging in general elections post-Eid. It was argued that the PTI had lost an opportunity by not lodging their complaint against ‘rigging’ in May strongly enough.
The results that declared the election of Mian Marghoob Ahmed, a close Sharif associate, provided the Imran camp with an opportunity to try and seize the initiative, if somewhat belatedly.
The eventful dharnas by the PTI after the by-polls have forced the authorities to look for ways to pacify the protesters, through recounts, etc.
What has been proven in the process is the PML-N government’s penchant for treating dissent with utter contempt. It reacted to the PTI protest violently and with the betrayed self-righteousness of a party that considers itself above reproach. That is a protester’s dream. What more can a set of protesters ask for than an easily provoked opponent?
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.