Victory for Kulsoom Nawaz in Sunday’s by-election in Lahore was a foregone conclusion — but not by such a narrow margin. After all, NA-120 is the constituency that the party and the Sharif family had dominated for almost three decades. It was inconceivable that they could be defeated. However, it was a close call, and certainly not the result the embattled Sharifs had sought in order to redeem their political fortunes.
The Sharifs may have regained the seat that was left vacant after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, but the close contest must be a cause for serious worry to both the ruling PML-N and the country’s most powerful political dynasty. Interestingly, it all happened despite the advantage the party had in having a government both at the centre and the province.
The very fact that the margin of victory had shrunk to 14,647 votes from 39,345 in the 2013 general elections is a sign of the party losing ground in its bastion. For sure, this outcome of the NA-120 by-election may not change the political dynamics of the country, but it will certainly have a significant impact on the future course of politics.
Indeed, by-elections are not a credible measure of the general popularity level of a particular party. But NA-120 assumed greater political importance because the seat was vacant after the disqualification of a sitting prime minister for not being honest. Both the PML-N and PTI, the main opposition party, ran their campaign around the verdict.
The very fact that the margin of victory has shrunk is a sign of a party in trouble.
While the PML-N pitched the vote as the rejection of the controversial ruling disqualifying the prime minister, the PTI described it as a vindication. Neither party was right in its assertion. Surely the Panama scandal did cast its shadow over the election, but it was not the determining factor. The fact that the turnout was low despite the frenzied campaign run by the ruling party led by Maryam Nawaz, with the ousted prime minister’s wife being the candidate, is quite significant.
Perhaps it is indicative of the fact that there has not been a groundswell of adulation for the disgraced leader even in his stronghold as had been depicted. It is clear that the sympathy card has not worked. Undoubtedly, Kulsoom Nawaz was the best bet for the party, but the move failed to generate the kind of fervour needed for a landslide. It is more surprising as the PTI campaign too was lacklustre. Dr Yasmeen Rashid was virtually left on her own with no senior party leader helping her in the campaign except in a couple of rallies at the end.
Surely various other factors may also have contributed to the narrow victory margin, eg the family feud and widening cracks within the party. Allegations of an invisible hand and conspiracy theories about too many candidates having been fielded by the ‘agencies’ do not hold ground. It is, however, valid to object to the participation of individuals linked to banned militant and extremist sectarian groups.
It was the responsibility of the Election Commission and the security agencies to stop them. No one would disagree that this so-called policy of mainstreaming the militant groups and allowing them to propagate their extremist ideology from a political platform is unacceptable and against the law.
Still, one wonders how the participation of these groups may have affected the PML-N vote bank. How come the party expected to get those right-wing religious extremist votes? Irregularities and the allegation by the ruling party that its supporters were intimidated sound quite preposterous.
There has been much talk about the Maryam factor in the election campaign. Many observers describe her participation as marking her formal entry in the succession and party leadership race, though she has been active in PML-N politics for quite some time now, mostly behind the scenes. Indeed, Nawaz Sharif has groomed his ‘talented’ daughter as his heir apparent. But it was for the first time that she emerged on the political centre stage. She did indeed appear impressive and articulate. For a party with a conservative social ethos and very few women in senior party and cabinet positions, her taking charge has been a positive change. But being the daughter of the top leader surely makes a huge difference in a dynastic political culture.
Predictably, her rise has evoked a mixed reaction from within the party, the Sharif family and from outside. While she may have developed a significant pocket of support inside the party, many senior party leaders have strong reservations about her premature elevation. Party stalwarts and the old guard like Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan have gone overboard but some others are muted in their criticism.
Her aggressive tenor regarding the military establishment has scared particularly those who associate their political survival with the status quo. Most of them would not hesitate to jump ship at the slightest indication of the vessel hitting a rock. The situation has not come to this stage, but matters do not seem very encouraging with the Sharif family facing trial on corruption charges. Her no-holds-barred speech after the NA-120 election would not have gone down well with her critics.
Major resistance comes from within the family dynasty. It is apparent that her growing assertiveness has intensified the power struggle within the party. The cleavage between the two Sharif brothers and their children is no more a secret. The absence of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza from the country during the election campaign has brought the differences into the open.
For sure, Maryam’s ascendancy is perhaps more divisive at a time when the party needs greater unity in its ranks. What irks many critics inside and outside the party is her sense of entitlement and claim to dynastic power. Another point that may go against Maryam is her indictment by the NAB trial court on charges of forgery. All this does not bode well for the pretender to the throne.
The writer is an author and a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2017