Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) has pulled an unexpected rabbit out of its hat by trouncing the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the by-elections to 20 seats in the latter’s stronghold of Punjab.

The by-elections had been necessitated by the defection of PTI’s 20 MPAs, who voted for Hamza Shehbaz Sharif as Chief Minister (CM) of the province. The final electoral tally was PTI 15, PML-N four, and an independent one.

This gives the PTI a simple majority in the Punjab Assembly, allowing it to elect Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Speaker of the Punjab Assembly and from the PTI’s ally Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), as the CM in a run-off vote on July 22, 2022, as ordered by the Supreme Court.

In retrospect, the reasons for the surprise defeat seem clear, although the implications for the future of the federal coalition government headed by the PML-N’s Prime Minister (PM) Shehbaz Sharif seem forbidding. Looking at the results, the PTI won in all three areas of Punjab– northern, central and southern — evenly distributed at five seats each, implying an irresistible tilt of the voters towards the PTI.

Two critical factors suggest why the PML-N came a cropper and PTI upended all expectations in these by-elections. One, the candidates fielded by the PML-N were all former PTI MPAs who had defected to vote for Hamza Shehbaz as CM. The only exception was one seat in Lahore, where a PML-N candidate won.

This outcome implies the voters did not appreciate the PTI defectors standing on PML-N tickets. Within the PML-N at constituency level, there was both resentment and apathy at the tickets being handed out to PTI defectors en masse, with hardly a nod at loyal PML-N workers and leaders at local constituency level.

Despite Maryam Nawaz’s campaigning, the PML-N narrative failed to inspire or match Imran Khan’s aggressive, conspiracy theory-laden bluster. There may also be some element of our traditional tilt towards the perceived underdog in any political/electoral contest.

Never one to give up an advantage, Imran Khan persists in his rampage against ‘rigging’ through the state machinery and a ‘totally biased’ Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), all of which he claims the PTI overcame through the efforts of its workers and voters.

Throughout the election campaign, Imran Khan had deployed the double-edged sword of alleged rigging and claims of victory, a gambit that covered all contingencies but which now appears silly after the PTI’s sweep.

If the ECP was ‘biased’, how did the largely peaceful, fair and free elections, local brawls and controversies notwithstanding, take place? How did an opposition PTI win? Now Imran Khan, fresh from his triumph, is demanding fair and free general elections under a ‘credible’ ECP!

The second critical factor in the PML-N’s defeat is the political cost it was forced to pay by taking hard economic decisions on the IMF’s urging to avoid default and meltdown. Inflation inherited from the PTI’s bad governance was exacerbated by the PML-N’s being forced to raise petrol and energy prices in response to trends in the international market. The reduction in petrol and diesel prices the other day, made affordable by a drop in international prices, proved too little, too late.

Maryam Nawaz and other PML-N leaders have accepted defeat gracefully, although disappointment is writ large on their faces. Both PTI and the PML-N-led coalition are meeting to chalk out their strategy from here on.

With three provinces out of its grasp and Sindh under Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rule, PM Shehbaz Sharif’s federal coalition government is threatened by inability to run the affairs of the federation because of the absence of consensus and the possibility that if three provincial Assemblies are dissolved, a general election looms closer than before. And despite agreement with the IMF, the external aid situation may become more fraught, adding to the weakness of the federal government.

In their deliberations on the situation that has now emerged, the PML-N will no doubt, at the insistence of Nawaz Sharif, reflect with hindsight on the wisdom of removing Imran Khan and his government through a no-confidence motion, thereby inheriting the economic mess the PTI left behind.

Nawaz Sharif had argued for letting Imran Khan remain in office till his tenure expired in 2023, pointing out that his incompetence and blundering (including the falling out with his ‘selectors’) would weaken and destroy his credibility, i.e. letting him sink under the weight of his own floundering. This by-election has strengthened that argument to the status virtually of unassailable.

It was PPP co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari’s Machiavellian approach to politics that prevailed with Shehbaz Sharif, no doubt leavened by the temptation of prime ministership for himself and the chief ministership of Punjab for his son Hamza.

Shehbaz Sharif was also considered more amenable to playing ball with the military establishment. Now events have proved Nawaz Sharif’s political instincts correct. The only party that has suffered in this debacle is the PML-N.

The PPP had no major stakes in Punjab, since its presence there is a pale reflection today of its once mighty dominance in the largest (by population) and most powerful province in the country. In passing, let us not forget that it was PML-N that eventually replaced the PPP in Punjab.

Whether the by-election loss implies the PML-N has itself been replaced by the PTI in Punjab may be too early to say. The decisions by all sides of the political divide on future strategy will be the best indicator of the direction things may move in the days ahead.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

Rashed Rahman

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