Imran’s victory

Published October 18, 2022

THE voters have sent their message through the ballot box, and it appears that the majority is still with Imran Khan.

Though the former prime minister did not enjoy the clean sweep he may have hoped for, comfortable victories on six of seven National Assembly seats in three different provinces have considerably strengthened his hand. He will feel that the bellicose campaign he launched soon after being ousted from power is yielding its desired results. However, it remains to be seen how or if he can use this victory as leverage to enforce the demand for an early election.

There are some important takeaways from the Oct 16 by-polls. First, the PTI’s marathon jalsas over the past few months have not just been good for optics, they have also translated into votes at the ballot box. Citizens turned out in large numbers to cast their votes in nearly all contests barring Karachi, despite by-elections usually being low-key affairs. This means that the former prime minister’s narrative is very much alive and driving large numbers of citizens’ voting choices.

Read: What do the 'unsurprising' results of by-elections say about Pakistan's political landscape?

This brings us to another important point: the PTI has already made it clear that Mr Khan does not intend to return to the National Assembly. This entire exercise was just a political tactic to foil the PDM. It has wasted public funds and will deny the people of these six constituencies representation in parliament. However, it appears that the voters agreed to this sabotage as an expression of their discontent with the status quo. This is a worrying sign of diminishing faith in the democratic system.

Thirdly, a question mark remains on the electability of PTI leaders other than Mr Khan. The firebrand politician’s public image as an unimpeachable, uncompromising leader has managed to hold up despite his follies and questionable decisions. The people around him, however, are not entitled to the same support that he receives. This much is evident in Mehr Bano Qureshi’s resounding defeat in Multan. Though even some PTI supporters have ‘celebrated’ her defeat as a ‘no’ to nepotism in politics, it puts Mr Khan in a pickle.

Come the general election, the PTI chairman will be under pressure when deciding tickets. He will need to balance realpolitik with his voters’ idealistic demands. If Ms Qureshi’s defeat is any hint of how voters may treat candidates without Mr Khan’s star power, the PTI will likely need to disappoint many ‘electables’ if it wishes to win on the back of its supporters alone.

Lastly, even though Mr Khan has touted his victory as a ‘referendum’ on the question of early elections, it is unclear what he hopes to achieve with the stunt. The government seems to be in no mood to accede to his demands, and Mr Khan has gained little leverage to realistically force its hand.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2022

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