Pakistanis on Sunday voted for the second time in a month for by-elections on eight constituencies which fell vacant after the elected lawmakers died of various reasons in the past two and half years. The opposition parties namely Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) emerged as the major winner with winning three and two seats respectively while Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal (JUIF) won one seat. The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) could only manage to win one seat that too with a margin of as low as 1,150 votes. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has initially withhold results of one National Assembly seat owing to complaints of irregularities and riggings and later ordered re-election on the controversial seat on March 18. Political pundits predict transparent elections would hand PMLN another seat as the constituency has been PMLN’s traditional stronghold.
Traditionally, but not necessarily, the ruling government has been winning by-elections in Pakistan. This is because when in power, the ruling party can influence ECP, use means to swing voters tilt and exploit resources for smooth sailing on Election Day. But despite all these maneuverings, the ruling party still can’t stamp out victory unless it hasn’t delivered on electoral promises or is at least on a course to deliver those. In PTI’s case, almost nothing has happened. The party is not only establishment’s blue eyed but it also enjoys overwhelming, and unprecedented, support from the judiciary and an image building by the media. Yet, it could get hold of one seat and lost a seat from its stronghold in Peshawar. Even half of the tall electoral promises are not fulfilled when the party has already spent half of its tenure.
Just when PTI was gearing up for Senate Elections, a humiliating loss at the hands of joint opposition, an amalgamation of 11 political parties named as Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), dashed much of the PTI hopes. On the contrary, losing only one seat meant the PDM will reorganize itself after a bit of lost momentum to come stronger in the Senate elections.
A couple of months back, PTI also failed to get simple majority to form government in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), a north eastern area of Pakistan administered by the federal government. The GB power throne always went to the party that ruled Islamabad but PTI had to rely on independents to form government. It then gave minister or equal to ministerial portfolios to nearly all members who joined PTI for the formation of the government.
The PTI, which has been enjoying an extended honeymoon period by throwing all wrongdoings on the successive outgoing governments, now faces the reality. Firstly, it may not risk going into Local Government (LG) elections because LG elections go down at micro level and masses are extremely unhappy with the unbridled inflation, electricity and petroleum prices, and unemployment. Prime Minister Imran Khan has long been eying establishing and winning a new LG system that would give him a grass root level mechanism to enter in the next general elections campaign as a frontrunner. This is not happening; the government is using delaying tactics not to hold LG elections as it fears defeat. Now with defeats in by-elections and slipping of a seat from its hands, PTI may come up with more excuses to delay LG elections.
Secondly, the PDM which at one point was threatening but lost impetus amid lack of coherent strategy, may put more pressure on the government and take by-elections victories as a public verdict against the government. The PDM’s victory in all four provinces means ruling party’s popularity is waning not in PDM’s strongholds but across Pakistan.
The PTI promised, more than once, of bringing about electoral reforms but it failed the first test during by-elections. At least two people were shot dead while eight other injured on elections day violence in one of the intensely contested constituency. Besides, polling staff of more than 20 polling stations went missing at about midnight only to be available before dawn next morning. The ECP released strongly worded press release holding Inspector General Police and administrative machinery responsible for the mess. These unusual turn of events were done on the behest of local PTI political leaders who wanted to see their candidate winning. Besides, several PTI lawmakers and ministers kept roaming in the electoral constituencies forcing the ECP to send violation notices to them. With elections day becoming violent and blame game of rigging and irregularities, the PTI puts itself exactly in the tradition of gone old days when rigging, violence and hooliganism was the inevitable part of elections day.
Seven out of eight losses clearly exhibits that the public is running out of patience and is exhausted of PTI’s narrative of holding outgoing governments responsible for all the plights that country is into. This defeat, also sets the course what is coming ahead. The incumbent government has not much to cherish when it comes to performance; excessive reliance on social and electronic media instead of strategizing a way out to address public woes had pushed PTI towards a beginning of an end. The writing is on the wall, it’s up to PTI whether it lets itself go further down or emerges from the ground.
*The writer is a PhD scholar at the South Asian Center in Punjab University, Lahore. She tweets @AmeenaTanvir and can be reached at [email protected]