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Lessons from the by-election

September 21, 2017

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NOW that the hullabaloo generated by the NA-120 by-election is over, a serious study of the exercise should begin, for there are lessons in it that must not be ignored.

It was a well-contested poll and although the turnout at 39 per cent was much lower than in 2013 when it was 59pc, it was pretty high for a normal by-election. However, for this specific by-election, it might be considered low since the main rivals had raised the stakes to abnormal heights. The localities won by the two main contenders respectively will be better identified when disaggregated returns from polling stations are studied, but it is already clear that the PML-N and PTI can claim overwhelming support in very few localities although both have a substantial presence in all parts of the constituency.

That the percentage of women’s votes cast to their share of the total is significantly lower than men’s should be cause for concern. Again, polling station-wise analysis will show in which parts of the constituency women voters’ turnout was lower than elsewhere and the reasons for this will need to be explored.

The outcome shows that both the main contenders have lost. The PML-N has managed to retain this constituency but its vulnerability in the next contest has been exposed. The victory margin is so thin that if the environment continues to worsen for the Sharifs, or even if all factors remain the same, the PTI could overtake its rival. The fall in the PML-N’s share of the vote by around 10pc and PTI’s gain by 3pc are significant pointers of the trend for change. (The PTI was supported by several parties and its bag includes the votes provided by these parties.)

The PML-N and PTI can claim overwhelming support in very few localities.

The PTI has lost not only by failing to capture a Nawaz Sharif stronghold but also, and more importantly, by being unable to establish that Imran Khan’s time has come. The message from NA-120 is that if the weather remains favourable for Imran Khan his party could upstage the PML-N in Punjab. But the road to Prime Minister’s House will still not be clear for him because there is a Pakistan outside Punjab too, however vehemently the Punjab leaders may deny this, and that part should not be taken for granted by anyone.

Both parties dragged the Supreme Court into the electoral squabble. The PML-N consistently argued that those voting for it would reject the Supreme Court verdict in the Panama case while the PTI maintained that a vote in its favour would amount to an endorsement of the court’s decision. Both were in the wrong and their assumptions were unfair to the apex court.

That 60,000 people voted for the PML-N in spite of Nawaz Sharif not being found sadiq and ameen and liable to face trial in an accountability court is a reflection of the country’s political culture and nothing else. Likewise, the PTI’s claim that it represented the Supreme Court is untenable because a majority of the people voting for it on Sunday had most probably voted for it in 2013 ie before the Panama Papers were leaked. The judiciary has perhaps much to account for but let it not be dragged into electoral politics.

Both sides have their complaints. The PTI is challenging the increase in the total registered votes by 29,000. This means an increase by 9.8pc over four years. In the same constituency, the electorate increased by about 15pc during 2002-2008 and by about 10pc during 2008-2013. It should not be difficult to sort out this matter. The PTI has also protested against the use of state resources in the League’s campaign. But government support does not always help the candidates. If it did, no government could have been voted out of power.

The PML-N also complained of a disadvantage. It was fighting an election under the banner of a leader who had recently fallen from grace and whose review petition had, by a strange coincidence, been dismissed only a couple of days earlier. Its allegation that some of its effective activists had been picked up the night before certainly merits serious probe. The party has itself to blame if Shahbaz Sharif preferred a Turkish bath to watching the Sunday contest.

These complaints can be redressed and the Election Commission should be helped to overcome the problems it faces instead of being used as a punching bag by all and sundry.

The party that has lost the most is the PPP. Its continued decline not only in Lahore but also at the national level bodes ill for the future of democracy in Pakistan. Though no longer a left outfit, it is the only party in parliament that can occasionally challenge the right’s aberrations. As the rightist parties’ hold over national politics gets stronger, the state is bound to become vulnerable to pressure from the extreme right and everybody knows the kind of disaster that this would entail.

A significant aspect of this election is the rise of two extremist outfits in this constituency — the Barelvi Labbaik Ya Rasulallah party and the Deobandi Milli Muslim League. They came third and fourth respectively and together polled almost 13,000 votes. Well-informed circles are divided on this development. One view is that these extremist elements will cause distortions in the electoral process while the other viewpoint is that ultimately all extremists will have to be tamed by bringing them into the mainstream. Which side is correct will be decided by how the national affairs are managed.

The most serious question thrown up by this election is whether the military will be involved in the 2018 elections to the extent witnessed last Sunday. The country can hardly afford that. Besides, the presence of military personnel in polling booths is incompatible with the concept of free and fair elections. It could also affect the army’s image. It would be in the military’s own interest to tell the civilians to carry their cross themselves.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2017