Make-or-break by-elections

Published July 10, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AGAINST the backdrop of rising global energy and food prices which have necessitated widespread power cuts and brutal price hikes at home, triggering staggering inflation currently running at over 20 per cent, all eyes are on the Punjab Assembly by-elections exactly a week from today.

The Pakistani electorate is a very shrewd one, in my humble opinion, and often defies predictions to vote for parties and candidates who will deliver on their expectations and who, it believes, will be good for the country and democracy.

Unless, of course, the voters are cheated out of their verdict in the name of the ‘greater good’, in the name of clean government or Islamisation or accountability or patriotism or some other red herring to satiate the appetite of extra-parliamentary, anti-democracy forces.

These forces have been well-entrenched in the country and its systems. Don’t get me wrong but a mention of these forces and people see khaki. But there are many willing collaborators, some with pretensions of being equal partners, among the ranks of the judiciary and political parties too.

To oust Hamza Shehbaz as chief minister, calculations suggests the PTI will need to win some 14 seats.

One can at least see some method to the madness in the non-political forces joining hands for a power grab but it is self-defeatist for political entities, particularly with support among the people too, to coalesce with these forces and barter away their own right to take decisions and govern.

But, like they say, it is what it is.

Even knowing the terms of their relationship with an implicit ‘junior’ partner status and then agreeing to be ushered into the corridors of power, which are no more than a mirage in practical value, they act like a jilted lover when their foolish attempts to assert themselves backfire.

Editorial: Battlefield Punjab

I say foolish because having abandoned popular support as the solitary means of propelling their march to government, and not meaningful power or authority, after a while they are bedazzled by howling sirens, flashing beacons, secure corridors, helicopters and official jets.

If any sanity or reality still remained to remind them of their rather humble junior status, the ability to lock up political opponents, crush dissent and dissidents including riding roughshod over independent media fills them with a false sense of being all-powerful.

And then when they wake up, it’s too late, the dream is no more and the nightmare of being out in the cold hits them. Predictably, they cry foul. But by now the shoe is on the other foot. Another willing collaborator has taken their place and their tantrums will deliver very little to them. Their ‘historic’ defiance will last no longer than it takes someone to reverse their fall from grace.

Some parties will match this description completely, while only sections of others will. Few today will be so sane and principled that they will have none of this. I leave it to your imagination to figure out which of our political parties fits each of these categories.

Feel free to adjust the parameters to better reflect your thoughts on the issue. In any case, this was more a general reflection on the sad saga and the reality of the tragedy that is our politics is and its players, both political and otherwise.

In the 20 by-elections in four urban and 16 rural (with the inevitable spillover of an urban area or two in some) Punjab Assembly constituencies, a week from today voters will have considered some of the factors listed above and made up their minds before casting their ballots.

Walid Iqbal, a PTI senator, and accomplished Harvard and Cambridge-educated lawyer, who is one of the funniest men I have met in my life, appeared quite serious when he told Arifa Noor on her DawnNews programme that, “we’ll win all 20 seats”. Such is the surge in support for Imran Khan, he argued.

Both Walid Iqbal and later his leader Imran Khan made their ‘landslide’ subject to a level playing field. Despite their apprehensions, the PTI leadership also appeared confident that their workers will guard the ballot box and not allow their mandate to be stolen.

Read: Imran takes aim at ECP as five PTI MPAs notified

The central plank of the PTI remains attributing its loss of power to a conspiracy and on imploring the military leadership to shun their self-proclaimed neutrality and pave the party’s way back into office in the name of economic stability and national interest.

For his part, PML-N Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz appeared confident that the coalition he leads will score a major win as, he says, the people of Punjab are well aware of “our record of khidmat [public service]” and also know fully well who is responsible for the current economic crisis.

Despite the PML-N infight over whether Miftah Ismail (backed publicly by Khwaja Asif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi) or Ishaq Dar (backed publicly by Khwaja Saad Rafique) is best placed to steer the economy, PML backers see the final tally at 15/5 in their favour plus/minus a couple of seats.

Whosoever is making a convincing argument to the voters will win the most seats and the current coalition’s fate even in Islamabad will hinge on this result as well. To oust Hamza Shehbaz as chief minister, the calculation suggests the PTI will need to win some 14 seats.

Many observers say that seems like a tall order, despite the crowds Imran Khan is pulling in for his jalsas. By midnight in exactly a week it will be clear who is right. If the incumbent is unable to stay in office after the by-election, the defeat’s shockwaves will reach Islamabad too and possibly create grounds for a fresh national election.

If not, then possibly the coalition will get a reprieve and about 12 months to address near-impossible challenges in an economically hostile global environment with food prices continuing to rise. The only respite may come in the form of a global economic slowdown or recession that drives down oil prices.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2022

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