Crucial by-elections

Published July 17, 2022

THAT much is at stake for the PML-N and PTI in today’s by-polls on 20 provincial seats in Punjab is an understatement. Indeed, the outcome of the by-polls will determine the future of the fledgling Hamza Shehbaz government in the run-off election for the office of chief minister on July 22 as ordered by the Supreme Court, and, by extension, the fate of the coalition government led by the PML-N at the centre.

More importantly, the results will shape national politics for years to come. Hence, neither party can afford to lose seats in the Punjab Assembly. No wonder we have seen the top leadership of the two parties campaign hard in the past couple of weeks in their bid to ensure victory for their respective candidates. Sadly, they have often resorted to venomous rhetoric against each that runs the risk of creating further divisions and inciting violence.

Explainer: Why the by-polls in Punjab are so important

For example, former prime minister Imran Khan has consistently accused the ECP and its chief of bias and of rigging voters’ lists. He has also alleged that the civil bureaucracy and police are blatantly supporting PML-N candidates. Besides, he has stated that certain (un-named) military officers and intelligence agencies are conspiring to manipulate the by-poll results in favour of the ruling party.

He has also been urging his followers to hold the PTI ‘turncoats’ accountable for being disloyal to the party, often infusing his speeches with dangerous religious rhetoric and painting the democratic contest as a ‘fight between good and evil’ to whip up emotions. PML-N ministers have had no qualms about sinking to the same level by threatening to lodge treason cases against PTI leaders. They have also warned of stern action against those who disrupt law and order. Thus, it is not surprising that the acrimonious atmosphere in which these crucial by-elections are taking place has spawned widespread fears of violence during polling.

Even though the ECP has made arrangements to monitor and prevent violations of election laws and the code of conduct, it can only do so much. District administration and police can intervene only after the fact. Calls for de-escalating the toxic political rhetoric seem to have fallen on deaf ears. With the PTI believing this is a do-or-die situation, its leadership has made it amply clear that it will not accept any outcome — even if the polling is held in a free and fair manner — that is short of a victory for its candidates.

It would be highly irresponsible on the part of its leadership and unfortunate for the country if the party failed to ensure that its supporters remain peaceful today, whatever the results may be. Meanwhile, the ruling PML-N must ensure that the vote is held in a peaceful atmosphere, and that its workers do not respond to provocations from their rivals and provide them with an excuse to challenge the results.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2022

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