With the next general elections less than a year away and the political landscape taking an uncertain turn, the recent by-election in NA-4 come across as quite significant.
The PTI wanted to prove that its model of governance can pay off electorally. The opposition, on the other hand, wanted to show that voters can see through the PTI’s careful marketing strategy and do not believe that it has delivered during the last four years.
The two main ruling parties – the PTI in the provincial government and the PML-N in the federal government – pulled every trick of patronage-based politics to gain support from voters. The PML-N candidate, flanked by the powerful adviser to the prime minister, had the upper hand in doling out goodies by providing household gas connections and restoring electricity to the area. Meanwhile, the provincial departments settled for solar-powered systems and promised to rehabilitate sewers and streets.
In the end, the result was predictable but reflects the new political landscape in Peshawar and, arguably, across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. PTI candidate Arbab Amir Ayub comfortably secured the most number of votes. He secured almost 20,000 votes more than the runner-up candidate – the ANP’s Khushdil Khan – and Nasir Khan Mosazai of the PML-N, who secured the third position.
Nevertheless, the distribution of votes and the standing of the various political players as compared with the 2013 elections are instructive. First, Mosazai has improved his vote collection since 2013. However, this should not be the source of any disillusionment within the ranks of the PML-N. The party’s effort to win support from the JUI-F did not benefit Mosazai in any way. The marginal increase in votes can probably be attributed to delicate patronage-based politics rather than extra voters coming out because the JUI-F or the PML-N appealed to them.
However, the ANP has a lot to take away from this by-election – both promising and concerning. The party’s goal of improving on its dismal performance in the 2013 election and posing a serious threat to the PTI suffered a blow with Arbab Amir’s defection to the PTI earlier this year. In this backdrop, the veteran Khushdil Khan’s performance must have been heartening for the party and its battered support base.
However, therein lies the party’s problem. It has clearly not been able to broaden its appeal wide enough to pose a serious challenge to the PTI. It relies on targeting the PTI’s leadership but does not offer a viable alternative to the PTI-led provincial government. This means that the support for the party is stagnant and it will, at most, be a runner-up in similar elections.
The PTI appears to have solidified its support into a core that seems formidable. This by-election is an indication that the party’s core workers are willing to come out in support of the party, irrespective of any noise that the opposition makes about its leadership and performance. They wholeheartedly believe the message from party’s leadership and are willing to overlook the continued absence of their elected representatives from constituencies to be around their party chairman – whether it is in Bani Gala or Nathiagali. This core support base may turn out to be the jiyala equivalent of the current generation – a kind of neo-jiyala set.
Another important thing about this core support base is their age profile. They are young, energetic and seem committed to the party’s ideology. Exit polls by the non-partisan Center for Peace and Development Initiatives (CDPI) revealed that PTI has support among almost all age groups. But people from younger age groups, who are likely to be involved in politics for far longer, are predominantly PTI supporters.
The PTI also has the advantage of having a politician like Chief Minister Pervez Khattak within its ranks. While the party has unwavering support from its core voters, its elected ranks are far from unified. There are visible differences between the provincial cadres of the party on issues such as the distribution of funds and the next chief minister. These public differences were probably one of the reasons why the opposition even believed that they have a chance to dislodge the PTI from NA-4.
But the chief minister, an old jiyala, successfully managed to convert these differences into an opportunity for himself. He has been on the offensive against opposition parties, poaching their electables and filling the ranks of the PTI with men who have seen the hot and cold of politics and understand the value of compromise and politicking.
The opposition parties will face an uphill – probably impossible – task to dislodge the PTI in the general elections if they continue with their current approach. The PTI seems to be vulnerable in the next election, but only to the extent that the opposition parties understand its weaknesses and strengths. So far, the opposition does not seem to have any clue about this.
The writer is pursuing a doctorate degree at UC Berkeley. Email: yasir.khanberkeley.edu