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The task after by-election

September 19, 2017

A RELATIVELY close by-election result in NA-120 suggests that both the PML-N and PTI have much work to do ahead of the general election scheduled for next year. Of concern to both parties should be the less-than-expected turnout considering that the by-election was seen as a mini referendum on the Sharif family and the PTI’s signature anti-corruption politics. A single by-election is not a good measure of overall voter sentiment, but the NA-120 poll could prove to be a bellwether of Punjab’s voting behaviour next year. For the PML-N, there are some positives. Kulsum Nawaz’s victory in a campaign organised and run by her daughter Maryam suggests that the Sharif brand still has considerable electoral appeal in the wake of Nawaz Sharif’s ouster on corruption charges. Maryam Nawaz ran a steady campaign on her mother’s behalf and made no major missteps.

What is unclear is whether the dampened enthusiasm in NA-120 for the PML-N is because of the Sharif family’s legal woes or the absence of local issues in the campaign. Maryam Nawaz’s speeches tended to focus on perceived national achievements of the PML-N and alleged conspiracies against her family rather than on issues of service delivery and governance in NA-120. The Sharif family is also hampered by a clear split between Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza on one side and Ms Nawaz and her father on the other. ECP rules restrict ministers from campaigning on behalf of candidates, but the near invisibility of the Punjab government and allies of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif for the entirety of the contest suggest all is not well at the top of the PML-N hierarchy. With a general election less than a year away, the Sharifs will need to determine relatively soon who will lead the party into the polls.

For the PTI, there are more encouraging signs. A candidate, apparently well liked in the constituency and focused on local matters in her campaign, appeared to combine well with the overall PTI message of the by-election as a referendum against corruption and continued Sharif rule in Punjab. It confirms the adage that politics is local — without a strong candidate with ties to local communities, grand themes at the national level do not necessarily have much traction with voters. But the PTI should also note that while it is capable of narrowing the gap between itself and the PML-N, the latter continues to win more often than it does. With the PML-N potentially wracked by uncertainty over who will lead the party, the 2018 election could be the PTI’s greatest opportunity yet. But the PTI may need to return to its roots as a party of genuine change rather than continue with the powerful sloganeering at the top by Imran Khan allied with so-called electables.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2017