A bitter taste of unpopular decisions

Published July 18, 2022
PTI workers celebrate the victory at a party office in Lahore.—Arif Ali / White Star
PTI workers celebrate the victory at a party office in Lahore.—Arif Ali / White Star

LAHORE: The ‘unexpected’ sweeping victory of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the all-important Punjab by-polls is set to influence the political as well as economic future of the country.

The result establishes that the voters didn’t like the unpopular decisions of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz both on economic and political fronts: allowing the inflationary trend to continue to ward off economic meltdown and giving its tickets to PTI ‘turncoats’.

The outcome of the by-elections to 20 seats of the Punjab Assembly held in a largely peaceful manner on Sunday has not just sealed the fate of Hamza Shehbaz’s government in Punjab but also sent alarm bells ringing for Shehbaz Sharif’s federal government. The PTI-PML-Q alliance has improved its tally from 173 before the by-election and crossed the magical number of 186 to form its government in the province.

All the seats the PTI claimed on July 17 either directly belonged to the party or were won by the independents who later joined it during the government formation process. Imran Khan led a vigorous campaign against those who had ditched the party during the first poll for chief minister on April 16 and voted for Hamza. He has also been targeting the Establishment for not siding with him in foiling the ‘conspiracy’ the PML-N, PPP and other parties had hatched “with the help of the United States” to dethrone him.

However, those keenly watching the political situation say the rising inflation graph cost the PML-N more than Khan’s narrative. Inflation, which had been a drawback of the PTI government and had been repeatedly targeted by then opposition PML-N, came to haunt the latter when it took the reins of the country in April.

“People had hoped that the PML-N government would provide them relief from the ‘wrong’ economic decisions taken by the PTI government. But, instead, the Shehbaz government aggravated their economic affliction by blindly following the IMF,” says Dr Amjad Magsi of the South Asia Study Centre of the Punjab University.

“The present rulers popularised Imran Khan’s narrative by taking the anti-masses, unpopular decisions and that too after weeks of confusion and reluctance that accelerated the economic meltdown. Politically, it was more suited for them to go for new elections soon after Khan’s ouster from power rather than owning the unpopular decisions of the last PTI government,” he explains.

Senior columnist Imtiaz Alam says the deteriorating economic conditions have played a role in setting the mood of the voters but it is mainly a verdict against the turncoats whom the PML-N embraced.

Dr Magsi says unlike the PTI which was clear in its target, there was a confusion and division in the PML-N ranks about the backing of the former PTI MPAs given party tickets for the by-polls.

Sensing this division and mobilising its cadre, the PML-N high command had warned that the district and divisional leaderships would be shown the door in case of defeat in their respective areas.

The victory for the PTI in what is traditionally known as the PML-N citadel -- Lahore -- and other central Punjab urban centres is shocking for many.

Prof Rashid Ahmed Khan says the impact of the by-polls result will not remain confined to Punjab only but it will spill over and adversely affect the Shehbaz government in Islamabad. “With three provinces out of control of Islamabad and the fourth, Sindh, in the grip of ally PPP, the central government will have very limited space to work. It may not sustain pressure for long from three anti-centre provincial governments and will have to bow out of the power corridors. Particularly if the three provincial assemblies are dissolved, the general election will become inevitable,” he says.

Observers had been expecting that Punjab Assembly Speaker Parvez Elahi, who is a joint candidate of the PTI and PML-Q for the re-poll for CM’s office, would be reluctant to dissolve the assembly and try to convince Imran Khan to prolong their stay in power in the province to further deal a blow to the PML-N through state resources. But, he told a private TV channel late in the night that he (after becoming the CM) would dissolve the assembly minutes after a direction from Imran Khan.

A senior PML-N leader, who requested not to be named, says the local political instability will create trouble on the foreign front as even friendly countries will be reluctant to come forward and extend their assistance to an ‘unstable government’ facing financial crunch.

To prevent further chaos in the country, Mr Alam suggests that Hamza should accept defeat and immediately resign as chief minister, while Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif convene an all-party conference and a session of parliament to decide the schedule for general election.

“Let a caretaker government be formed to preside over the power transition,” he says.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2022

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