Pakistan Reader# 365, 19 July 2022
On 17 July, by-elections were conducted in Punjab for 20 seats of which PTI won 15 seats. The seats became vacant when 25 members of the provincial assembly of Punjab, who had won on PTI tickets, had defected on instructions of PTI leadership in the Punjab Assembly and were disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan. The exit polls did not exhibit a victory for PTI, and national dailies as well were indifferent to plausible outcomes of result in a by-election. The results have stunned political opponents of PTI and Imran Khan is jubilant.
Three takeaways on the changed political equation in Punjab
First, PTI and its tech-enabled strategy for political communication. Social media is the new medium to remain updated on current affairs for a common man. PTI did not give up on this despite backlash during previous months when Imran Khan-led federal government was taken down. Imran Khan had systematic propaganda against his traditional allies, who he termed as thieves and corrupt, and presented himself as the alternative. The reliance of PML-N on the cadre-based voting pattern was not acquainted with the influence of digital platforms in revolutionizing the meaning of politics and identity.
Second, divisions within PML-N. PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif who was against bringing no confidence against the Imran Khan government has conceded that difficult decisions in economic policies turned the tide against PML-N. The upcoming re-election of CM in Punjab province will be a struggle to hold on to the majority as PTI has now a strength of 190 out of 371 seats in the provincial assembly. The decision of PML-Q to side with PTI will also integrate into increased representation in Punjab.
Third, establishment’s neural role. The temporary political control in Punjab after PTI chief minister Usman Buzdar resigned, enabled a holistic control by PML-N over police and revenue departments. Many PTI stalwarts, including Shireen Mazari, were manhandled and vindicated on social media platforms. The Punjab assembly had to run parallel sessions to pass budgets and speaker Parvez Elahi was leading the fight from the official assembly building of Punjab. The prevailing anarchy in the past months hints that the establishment has taken a backfoot for the time being at least.
Three implications of the by-elections
First, political instability versus economic instability. On 5 June, PM Shehbaz Sharif called for a ‘grand national dialogue’ for national reconciliation and have a common framework and objective to deal with multiple crises the nation is going through. The market at least has become prone to political uncertainty in Pakistan. After the PTI victory in by-polls, the PKR went to an all-time low at PKR 216 per USD. It will be interesting to observe how Imran Khan takes the proposal now. As per the latest updates, Imran Khan has demanded a fresh general election in Pakistan. While PML-N leaders have stressed that the government will complete the term and will seek a fresh election on time.
Second, Article 63-A. ECP had disqualified 25 PTI MPAs and that disqualification brought support to Hamza Sharif from 197 to 172. After winning the four in recent by-polls the number is at 176. A periodical U-turn of electables has been nullified this time. Yet, the Supreme Court in its verdict on disqualification went as far as nullifying the votes polled by party members who vote contrary to the direction given to them. The disqualification debate will gain momentum and is likely to refine the political tactics employed by one and all in Pakistan.
Third, transparent elections. PTI in its estimates was not expecting more than 10 votes in the by-polls and exit polls also showed PML-N winning the maximum seats. The support and inclination towards PTI and evidence of that in the by-poll results is a healthy sign of transparent elections. The average turnout in Punjab for by-polls has been between 20-25 per cent, but in the latest by-polls in Punjab, the turnout was 40 per cent. The number of seats may be small to oversee rigging yet the mandate has the potential to speak for itself and that has given a dream of transparent elections to politicians and people alike.
Opinions on the by-elections
Shahid Javed Burki in his article titled Political development: which way is Pakistan headed?, discusses the Glorious Revolution that occurred in the late 17th century in Britain. He sees the current political development in that direction and believes that it is a crucial formative stage.
Arifa Noor in her article titled Reading the room stresses that economy in Pakistan is the real reason for such political trends. She adds that PML-N politicking is getting out of date as the youth demographic bulge moves to cities and is more aware and expressive in the lands of the feudal landlords.
Rashed Rahman in his article An unexpected victory, explains two factors behind PTI's clean sweep. First, he explains the tactics of Imran Khan whose campaign was laden with conspiracy theories, biased institutions and the propensity of Pakistanis to vote for the underdog. The second reason he explains is the PML-N taking all the heat for tough economic decisions and how PML-N is itself in some soul searching to bring back consensus in PML-N.
Urooj Imran, “Explainer: Why the by-polls in Punjab are so important,” Dawn, 16 July 2022
Imran Adnan, “Voters break by-poll turnout record,” The Express Tribune, 18 July 2022