Updated Sep 22, 2017 12:34pm

What are the main conclusions from the NA-120 by-election results?

Tahir Mehdi

The highly anticipated by-election in NA-120 is finally over and Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of the ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has come out victorious. Many pundits had declared that this was going to be a ‘bellwether election,’ showing us the way winds will blow in the 2018 general election.

I am not sure whether we can place the by-election on such an exalted pedestal for the simple reason that the general election will not be NA-120 multiplied by 272.

But the by-election did provide enough ammunition to all the parties to sit confidently in TV talk shows, make lofty claims, and try to force the on-screen political discourse in their favour.

Whether you prefer to build a victimhood narrative or you see a silver lining around the clouds or want to loudly pronounce the heralding of a new era, the by-election numbers will help you.

Can we then really extract some hard political lessons from these figures? The numbers do have some meat and you can add pinches of salt and pepper to cook your own broth, or haleem.

Related: End of Sharif dynasty?

The victory margin — the difference of votes polled by the victorious PML-N and the runner-up PTI candidates — was 39,329 votes in the 2013 election, but in the by-election it has been reduced to 14,188. So hasn’t Nawaz Sharif lost credibility or rather, isn’t PTI closing in on the ruling party?

Nawaz Sharif had polled 60.6 percent of all votes polled in 2013 and now his wife has gotten 49.0 percent, a loss of 11 percentage points. Like I said, the PML-N is losing. But is the PML-N’s loss PTI’s gain? The PTI has improved its tally of votes, but by only 3 percentage points, moving up from 34.6 percent of polled votes in 2013 to 37.6. The PTI couldn’t even come close to picking up all the votes that the PML-N lost.

Turnout in the by-election was just 39.4 percent – 12 percentage points lower than the 2013 general election. In real numbers, 26,274 fewer voters reached polling stations this time around than they did four years ago (ignoring the rise in number of registered voters).

You can never tell whether these non-voting Lahoris were PML-N’s supporters or PTI’s. Both the parties can lay claim on them and build a victimhood narrative, crying out loud that their voters were willfully barred from casting their ballots by na-maloom afraad. That happens.

Read next: Has PMLN transcended Nawaz Sharif?

Now suppose that as much percentage of voters would/could have managed to exercise their right to vote in the by-election as had in the 2013 election in this constituency (that is 51.8 percent of registered voters) and the two main parties had maintained the same percentage share as they have in the actual by-election results. In this case, the PML-N would have polled 81,645, while the PTI 62,734 votes.

Comparing this with the 2013 election results, it shows a loss of 10,000 votes for the PML-N and an almost equivalent gain for the PTI. So haven’t some the PML-N voters finally seen the light and switched sides? The more conscience ones, of course. But wait.

There were candidates of four, teeny, tiny religious parties in NA-120 in the general election of 2013 and they collectively polled just 1.8 percent of the polled votes. In the by-election, there were two independent candidates who were dependent on two known religious outfits and they collectively bagged 10.4 percent (12,952) of the votes.

Remember, the PML-N’s loss of votes in percentage terms also stands at 11.6 percent. So haven’t the die-hard right-wing PML-N voters of 2013 moved away from the party?

One of these two religious parties’ candidates, Azhar Hussain Rizvi, stood at third position with 7,130 votes. He is supported by the Labbaik Ya Rasulallah outfit that campaigned against the PML-N for ‘hanging Mumtaz Qadri.’

So the PML-N has lost this constituency of voters for sure and will have to do without it in the upcoming general election. But if the chink in the PML-N’s armour has been made by these ultra-right voters, how has the PTI improved its share?

In-depth: The unmaking of Nawaz Sharif

There were 295,826 voters listed in this constituency for the 2013 election and four years later the electoral rolls have seen an addition of 25,960 voters. Most of these are young – maybe the youngest of all – voters. A plausible explanation can be that the PTI has secured a higher proportion of these voters than the PML-N.

The PML-N is losing the extreme-right voters who had earlier been its loyal supporters and it is not attracting new, young voters. Maybe there is a reason why Hamza Ali Abbasi strikes a chord with Hafiz Saeed: they both have a common enemy. But even this double-trouble could not trump the PML-N. That should worry the PTI.

The PML-N can’t survive on its present demographic base for long. It has to address ‘the youth bulge’. But do ultra-right voters pose a threat to the PML-N? No and yes.

No, as in electoral terms they are likely to remain insignificant, barring a few constituencies. The Milli Muslim League is headquartered in Lahore and it had matched the two main contenders in the by-election ‘banner to banner and camp to camp’. But despite massive human and financial resources at its disposal, it could only garner a paltry 5,822 votes.

More importantly, the candidates of Labbaik and Milli could not ally, which would have been politically astute from the point of view of both. Of course, because one of them is 'kafir' and the other, 'pakka momin'. To overcome sectarian differences and unite all against one common enemy – the PML-N – will be a hell of a task for the future architects of electoral alliances.

But yes, these numbers sure are enough to give them a foothold in the mediatic discourse. They are the newest addition to the list of regulars at evening talk shows. Maybe that’s their sole aim and not any electoral victories per se.

Last but not the least, an active Twitter handle was not what the PPP needed to stay alive in Punjab.

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