Pakistan’s ruling party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) is not taking the by-election results from October 14 well, despite the bravado witnessed over maintaining a lead over the opposition.
Yet, this very lead of the PTI is eclipsed by losing crucial seats in the National assembly and more importantly the Punjab assembly to its arch rival, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N).
Analysing the results
Let’s talk numbers before delving into the implications of this crucial poll – that for the first time had overseas Pakistanis casting their ballot online.
There were 11 national assembly (NA) seats and 24 provincial assembly seats – of which 11 were Punjab’s – that had been vacated. PTI lost seats in the NA while the PML-N, in fact, made gains both at the centre and in the Punjab provincial assembly.
The current political standing of PML-N is thus; the president of PML- N and former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif is in jail while his brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces an uncertain future.
Shahbaz Sharif, PML-N chief and brother to Nawaz Sharif
Out on bail, he awaits judicial enquiry and trial over his alleged unexplained wealth divulged by the Panama leak. However, the party’s lowest point had been not so much the trials of the party bigwigs being charged for corruption and misuse of power, but of losing Punjab to PTI. Despite numbers, it failed to cobble together a government in the province, its seat of power following the general election in July this year. For the PML-N this might have sounded a death knell.
“Get Punjab, get control”
There is a saying in Pakistan, familiar to those who are well versed with the murky politics here, that – get Punjab and you get control. Strange as it might sound, history has proven that an opposition government in Punjab is any premier’s nightmare.
Hence, for any political party it is crucial to have one’s government in Punjab for its survival at the centre, or less dramatically, for it to function smoothly.”
Flashback to the late Benazir Bhutto’s tenure as prime minister and the constant headache and political manoeuvring engineered by the Sharifs in Punjab. Punjab was their fiefdom and remained so for the past many decades, with the exception of losing ground in Musharraf’s tenure.
Benazir Bhutto, served as premier of Pakistan twice, and was assassinated in 2007
If we look at the July 2018 scenario, we find the Sharifs traumatised and shaken by the corruption allegations, breakaway dissidents, lack of leadership or direction and the alleged power tussles within the party preceding the elections.
Not to forget the widespread allegations of electoral rigging in July not just by the PML-N but the PPP and other parties. Consequently, the PML-N lost ground to PTI. Losing Punjab despite having adequate numbers in the Punjab assembly because of aggressive PTI hustling and cobbling together a coalition, an effort Machiavelli would have been proud of, served a bigger humiliation for the Sharifs’. Punjab, it seemed was done and dusted with.
PML-N looking for a lifeline
Thus, any victory, however small in the by-election would be a lifeline at this point. Especially, if there is any chance of regaining Punjab. This is a real possibility as PML-N gains numbers in the assembly and, if, the party displays acumen and political dexterity in fanning dissent, in the form of disgruntled members already sniffing around to unseat Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. PML-N could succeed in clawing its way up again.
Usman Buzdar, Chief Minister of Punjab province in Pakistan
Even if such a possibility does not materialise, it could recoup and form a formidable opposition to Buzdar’s government in the province. Shahbaz’s untimely arrest before the by-election also induced sympathy for the PML-N in Punjab and went in its favour in the by-polls.
The Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s justification behind PTI’s loss to PML-N in the by-election because of premier Imran Khan’s inability to canvass should serve a reminder to PTI for its political future. For, Chaudhry spells out what many believe, that the PTI is a personality-led Khan show. Many would argue the same for PML-N and PPP – that has never been able to muster the strength and national vote bank after the loss of Benazir Bhutto.
In Pakistan, personality driven politics and dynastic rule still rules the roost despite the changes evident in the political system brought about by social media driven campaigns, growing awareness among the lower income groups, and defeat of many political heirs in the last election. The political system cannot be simply relegated to neat compartmentalisation. The very same commanding personalities are fallible and their success subjective to several intermeshed dynamics. Pakistan’s powerful military for one.
It is also hard to ignore the alleged rigging of July blamed on the army despite the rejoinders issued by the Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan [ISPR]. The by-election is being hailed as vindication of the alleged rigging charges by the opposition that has now re-emerged in strength. However, if PTI numbers were boosted by help from other ‘sources’ in the general election why was it not thus helped in the by-polls?
It could be that those ‘sources’ believed that a clean sweep was necessary to break the PML-N and ensure a majority PTI government in July but once the PTI was in place it would be able to secure the few seats being contested in the by-polls. The other objective of the July polls might have been to ‘help’ a compliant Khan desperate for power after a long arduous struggle and to once and for all cripple the old guard. This does not mean that PTI lacked any strength or that the public were not desirous of a change of political leadership among the people. But the way the electoral process was conducted in July was dubious to say the least.
And, as Chaudhry also noted in the case of Khan, personality led politics is a strong factor. The same goes for PML-N and PPP now being steadily reinvigorated after years by Bilawal Bhutto.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
Power play in Pakistan is all about balance
Any political savvy knows how crucial it is to maintain good ties with the military, the most powerful institution in the country. Despite the outward adherence to democratic norms, the balance of power between the executive, the judiciary and the military has been fragile and tricky. All three need to be on board for formation of foreign policy, defence, governance and law and order. A head of state that knows how to balance this would be ideal, the problem is that power injects wilfulness and defiance. And thus, the circus begins.
Khan’s egoism and zero tolerance for advice leave alone diktat is legendary. Instead of baring fangs at opponents, PTI should focus on the economy and governance. Blaming past government policies while crying hoarse about its magic economy revival plan this past year has not helped either.
For now, the PTI should draw a lesson from its own victory and consequent defeat for its constituency is derived on idealism and promises of deliverance.