By-election blues

Published October 18, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

SUNDAY brought around another series of by-elections, but despite the excitement-filled headlines in the media, the results simply followed the trend set by the July by-elections — the PTI is on the rise.

This much was established in July, and Oct 16 has not added new details to the sense that times are changing. Perhaps this was one reason there was less excitement this time around; also, unlike July, these elections were not going to settle a government’s fate. The only debate was about how big the PTI’s victory would be. Would Imran Khan win them all or would he lose a couple of them and why?

And the results threw up no surprises. The PTI won big in Punjab and KP, and lost one of two in Karachi. One can conclude that the party still doesn’t face much competition in KP; that in Punjab, it now poses the most serious challenge to the PML-N; and that the vote in Karachi has fragmented. However, the MQM’s future as a sustainable political force is now questionable.

But beyond the position of the parties, from July to October, it is also clear that inflation and aggressive posturing are important factors in winning over the people. When the PTI was in power from 2018 onwards, the PML-N smoothly won the by-elections in Punjab while the former struggled in its citadel of KP. Since its removal, the PML-N seems to be struggling in its stronghold — while the PTI is shooting fish in a barrel, electorally.

It is hard to say if this is a vote for the PTI or a vote against the PDM.

But this perhaps is not a bad time to point out, as an old soul (who remembers days bygone and tweets as Takhalus) observed, that the PML-N is having the moment the PPP experienced in 1993.

Punjab used to be PPP territory when Benazir Bhutto first came to power in 1988 and the IJI was put together to stop it from sweeping the province. By the next election in 1990, the PPP polled more or less the same percentage of votes it had in 1988 but the IJI was handed victory on a platter much like the PTI was in 2018.

By 1993, the tables had turned — Nawaz Sharif had been thrown out unceremoniously and the PPP was set to return to power but the election results showed that the PML-N had become a reality in Punjab. This was a surprise for the PPP then, as perhaps the PTI’s victories this year are for the PML-N. That they still have not wrapped their heads around this is evident from their statements about how July was due to lotas, how October is because of Imran Khan’s presence himself and so on.

However, in all this, perhaps the most insightful comments were made by Maryam Nawaz where she described what a level playing field meant to her. It was not enough to move forward, she said, adding that she wanted events to go back to when the victimisation of the PML-N began. But while governments can be changed and legal decisions overturned, time travel is a fantasy. The past five years have allowed the PTI to establish itself in the imagination of voters and this will be hard to undo, even if Imran Khan is disqualified or sent to jail. It’s 1993 all over again.

But this time around, the people may be angrier than they were in the 1990s. And all the parties, including the PTI, should note this — they are voting for a candidate and a party which does not plan on representing them in parliament. The PTI won these elections to simply resign — again. It is hard to say if this is a vote for the PTI or a vote against the PDM or even a rejection of the larger situation. This should worry us all.

However, the past three months also carry a lesson for the PML-N, which seems to be sleepwalking through its troubled times.

It seems to have lost faith in its heir apparent: what else can one make of the growing clamour for the return of Nawaz Sharif? Apparently, the PML-N’s Mohsin Ranjha tweeted words to this effect as the results were pouring in on Sunday evening, only to delete it. But more intriguing, the family which was always in control of the political machinery in Punjab seems to be napping.

Hamza Shehbaz, who was the family’s viceroy for Punjab, is said to have played no role in these by-elections. And Maryam Nawaz too left abruptly for London. Did neither feel responsible for the campaign? Or was it that neither the uncle nor the father told either of the two to take charge of the election? And if so, why? Does it mean that neither branch feels responsible for the party’s electoral performance, or had they all just conceded the elections before they took place? I don’t have the answers, but it seems linked to the family dynamics.

Last but not least, these victories, while they consolidate the PTI’s position, bring the party no closer to its goal of an election. An early election is dependent on the establishment and the PML-N, more than the other players. The PML-N’s anticipation that time will improve its chances is based more on hope than any real strategy, while the establishment’s strategy is unclear to all.

These elections have simply underlined the need for an early election. Parliament will continue to be incomplete while the beleaguered PML-N-led government can either make difficult economic decisions or win the election. The two goals do not overlap.

Postscript: Addicted as I am to abstract questions, I wonder who will now prove to be Khan’s contender. Each time a party has become popular, its challenger, so far, has been a new one. Bhutto’s PPP was challenged by Nawaz Sharif and when Sharif became the main force in Punjab, his contender was not the PPP but Imran Khan. This seems to hold true of KP and Karachi as well. In the latter, the support for religious parties gave way to the MQM and now that the latter is weakening, the religio-political vote doesn’t seem to have made ingress beyond 2018. So now that we seem to be entering Khan’s era, will he too face a challenge one day?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2022

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