Gearing up

July 17, 2022

Amid fears of violent clashes, a neck-to-neck competition is expected between two key rivals — the PTI and the PML-N

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The stage is set for by-polls on 20 provincial assembly constituencies in the Punjab to determine the future course of the country’s politics. These constituencies were left unrepresented after the Election Commission of Pakistan de-seated the members representing these for defecting. The 20 members from the former ruling party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had voted for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate for chief minister in breach of party instructions.

Amid fears of violent clashes, a neck-to-neck competition is expected today between key rivals – the PTI and the PML-N.

The PTI-led federal government had fallen in a no-confidence vote against Imran Khan as the prime minister lost support of his coalition allies. In the Punjab, the chief minister was sacrificed to retain the support of key ally – the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid and a majority in the house. However, the around two dozen defections left the alliance short of a majority. Of the 25 PTI members de-seated in the aftermath of the vote for the chief minister five had been ‘elected’ on reserve seats. Those have since been replaced by candidates next on the party list. The by-polls are now taking place in the 20 constituencies represented by the de-seated members.

In a house of 371, the current strength is 351. The PML-N has 165 seats and enjoys the support of five independents and seven PPP members. The PTI has 163 seats and PML-Q 10. The Lahore High Court (LHC) has accepted the PTI plea and directed the ECP to notify the ‘election’ of reserved seats members. The PTI had approached the court against the earlier ECP decision deferring the issuance of notification until after by-elections to the 20 vacant seats. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has since ordered holding of a fresh election for the post of CM on July 22. These 20 seats will decide which party can rule the province.

The PML-N has awarded most of its tickets for the by-elections to the de-seated PTI rebels or their close relatives. The PTI candidates include PML-N dissidents including some who have parted ways with the party over the award of tickets to erstwhile PTI members.

Political analysts generally agree that the contest is going to be a major test for both the PML-N and the PTI. The results are also likely to determine the future course of Imran Khan’s populist agenda based on his claim that his ouster was the result of an international conspiracy.

The prime minister has been accusing the establishment and some foreign powers of conspiring against his government and installing an ‘imported government.’ The mantra seems to be very popular among some people. This has given a degree of confidence to Khan and his party to try and to win these by-polls. Chief Minister Buzdar had ruled the Punjab despite lacking popular support and serious doubts being raised about his ability to perform because the prime minister had ignored all criticisms of the chief minister.

The PTI is also hoping for an effective revolt in the PML-N over grant of party tickets to the de-seated members or their nominees rather than party loyalists including its 2018 candidates. For its part, the PTI has given its tickets to some PML-N dissidents. Some of the dissidents from the PML-N are also contesting independently. Overall, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan there are 330 candidates contesting these by-polls on 20 seats, including three in the provincial metropolis, Lahore.

An analysis of the 2018 general election results on these 20 seats is interesting. 11 of the seats were won by independents who later joined the PTI. The PTI had won the remaining nine seats. One of the seat in Lahore, PP168, was won by PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafique who retained his National Assembly seat and in the by-election the party lost the seat to the PTI.

In the 2018 general election, the PTI candidates were runners up on eight seats. PML-N candidates had stood second on 12 seats. The PTI had bagged nearly .68 million votes and the PML-N.52 million votes. The independent winners on these seats had polled.48 million votes in the 2018 election.

Electioneering was at its peak last week as the PML-N and the PTI held big rallies and public gatherings in almost every constituency.

Khan, was warning his supporters of “possible rigging” and “manipulation” by the ruling PML-N. He alleged that the establishment was supporting the PML-N to ensure his party’s defeat in these elections so that PTI should not form a government in the Punjab. He also alleged that the ECP was biased, an accusation which the commission has repeatedly denied. “Pakistanis should be aware of the thieves who come forth to rig the elections,” he told a large gathering in Bhakkar last week, urging the people to throw out the “corrupt rulers”.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz vice-president Maryam Nawaz led the campaign from thenot PML-N side saying that her party was fighting a war against incompetent governance and inflation that will not end until the goals of prosperity and development were achieved.

The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has withdrawn all its candidates in these by-polls. This may not be a major factor in the results as in general election 2018 the party had not polled many votes.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at waqargillani

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