Reading the room

Published July 19, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE election result is out. Despite the by-election and rumours of manipulation, the voters came out and chose the PTI overwhelmingly. With a victory of 15 seats, the PTI may have washed off some of the stains of the 2018 win, while the PML-N was graceful and mature in defeat. Both Malik Ahmed Khan and Maryam Nawaz will hopefully encourage the rest of their colleagues to follow suit. And possibly even the PTI.

It is too soon to analyse the election in detail, explaining what exactly happened — did the PML-N voter switch sides, or did he just stay home? Did the PTI gain new supporters or was it anger against the dissidents, or simply sympathy for Khan who was bundled out by everyone else? Was it the inflation?

But within just hours of an election victory, here are a few initial thoughts. For as we know, journalism is the first draft of history. Here is mine.

And thick and fast they came: The turnout was high unlike what many analysts expected. The recent Karachi by-poll had witnessed an abysmally low turnout. But in Punjab on Sunday, according to the Express Tribune, the turnout was nearly 40 per cent, while the average for by-elections is around 20pc to 25pc.

Read: Punjab by-poll results — a bitter taste of unpopular decisions for PML-N

It needs to be said that a higher turnout is dependent on the nature of the race. If the contestants and the voters expect a tight race, people will turn out to vote. If the result is taken for granted, the turnout is low — consider one of the lowest turnouts was in the Lahore seat where the PML-N’s Asad Khokhar, according to most accounts, was set to win. The more intense the competition, the better for democracy.

It was hard to find someone who spoke of the PML-N’s popularity in Punjab.

Clear and present mood: The swing in favour of PTI had been evident for some days. Indeed, many analysts were emphasising the importance of election day performance and election management, instead of arguing that Punjab was the PML-N’s stronghold. Their making this argument was an indication of the mood on the streets. It was hard to find someone who spoke of the PML-N’s popularity in Punjab and how it would ensure a by-election victory. In addition, most surveys of constituencies, however unscientific, indicated greater support for the PTI or a close contest.

This was due to inflation as well as the baggage of awarding tickets to the PTI dissenters. Everyone was aware of the friction within the party where its own people were not supporting the outsiders on party tickets.

However, senior journalist Habib Akram insisted the manner in which the PTI members ditched their party to bring down their own government was unprecedented and had offended the people. He felt the people would react to this ‘moral issue’. It seems he was right.

The southern divide: The campaign for the by-election was surprising not for the crowds Imran Khan pulled in cities but also south Punjab. The crowds in places such as Muzaffargarh and Bhakkar were of note. For that matter, Maryam Nawaz also held big jalsas. But those on the ground reported bigger changes afoot.

For example, Amir Khakwani, a journalist, pointed out that the PTI’s support was visible in the south’s rural areas and not just the urban areas, where the party has enjoyed support earlier too. The point here is that for too long have we viewed the south as this unchanging domain of electables who can switch sides or not and take their victory for granted. Sikander Bhadera, who is a PTI member (in the interest of transparency) says the south cannot be seen as an unchanging place where electables rule the roost with little space for parties. “With the population explosion, many among the younger generation have moved out of those villages. Some may have moved out simply to be independent, while others have been forced to move because of the behaviour of the local zamindars.”

He added that the “zamindars have also been selling lands, which has also resulted in the decline in their influence”. As a result, he says, along with the media and increasing rural incomes, party vote has begun consolidating in the rural south too. This may have been a factor at work along with the electables and dharas we usually focus on. Hopefully, journalists and others can investigate this further in the days to come.

Editorial: Crucial by-elections

The present is the same country: Importantly, this election has reinforced an unfortunate trend of our politics: once a political leader is thrown out of power, he has to take to the streets and kick up a fuss to remain relevant. Anything short of this can risk irrelevance, even further sidelining. Even those who castigated Khan for throwing ‘tantrums’ will have to concede that had he not been this confrontational, Sunday night’s results could have been very different, not just because people would have voted differently but because more effort could have been made to neutralise the PTI vote.

The aggressive campaign by Imran Khan from the day he was removed in the vote of no-confidence put the establishment on the back foot. Before Khan, Nawaz Sharif on the PDM campaign also used a similar strategy; remember Maryam Nawaz’s ‘power talks to power’ comment? However, it is high time that parties and their leaders be allowed to focus their energies on governing rather than just protecting their political space. For this, the establishment has to change more than the politicians.

It’s the economy, stupid: Inflation is said to have cost the PML-N, says the immediate reaction. But the PTI was responsible for four years of high prices. Perhaps, four years of PML-N politics on inflation, where the party blamed everything on PTI’s ‘incompetence,’ made its voters believe the PML-N would fix everything once in power. When this did not happen, the PML-N voter was demoralised. The PTI can now suffer the same fate, if it keeps blaming the PML-N for inflation in a black-and-white manner. All parties need to adopt a more nuanced approach to the economy and be more honest about the decisions to be made.

The people have expressed they are changing and it is time our establishment and our parties also caught up with the times.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2022

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