By-election trends

Published April 23, 2024

WHILE it is too early to deduce a definitive political trend from the provisional results of Sunday’s 21 by-polls held so soon after the Feb 8 general elections, the exercise has once again emphasised the need for the state — particularly the ECP and the administration — to work on improving the credibility of the electoral process.

Five National Assembly seats were up for grabs, while the rest of the contests were for the provincial legislatures, 12 of those for Punjab Assembly constituencies. Just as allegations of rigging and irregularities had marred the Feb 8 polls, similar accusations were levelled in a number of constituencies during the by-polls, most of which were won by PML-N candidates.

An example was the ‘confession’ of a presiding officer at a Lahore polling station. The PTI might have played up these claims, but independent observers, too, were of the view that all was not well at many polling stations in Punjab. The ECP ‘took notice’ of the apparent electoral malfeasance and sought a report. Meanwhile, violence was reported from Narowal, resulting in the death of a man near a polling station.

Whereas the by-polls should have been a straightforward process, this was not to be. Clearly, the lessons of the Feb 8 polls, as well as earlier fiascos such as the 2021 Daska by-election, have not been learnt. Unless polls in Pakistan are transparent — and seen to be so — the country’s democratic evolution will remain slow.

The ECP bears the principal responsibility for ensuring this transparency; others in the government, state and bureaucracy also have a duty to promote electoral integrity. Unless the culture of violence and rigging is rooted out, so that the vote is the sole determinant and source of political power, the credibility of the electoral process in Pakistan will continue to remain under a cloud.

By-elections in Pakistan have generally attracted little voter interest, with voters often tending to cast their ballots in favour of the party already in the saddle. As per the provisional results, the PML-N secured two NA seats, while winning 10 provincial constituencies in Punjab. Many of these were seats that N-League candidates had already won on Feb 8.

Rather than reflecting any great triumph for the N-League narrative, as its leaders are claiming, the results are more an indication of the fact that voters want to maintain the status quo at this point in the electoral cycle.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the rigging claims, which also dominated the Feb 8 polls. They indicate that the electoral victory is not as clear as the ruling party is portraying. There is much time between now and the 2029 elections. This period should be used by all stakeholders to ensure the next elections are free of controversy.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2024

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