Thursday December 09, 2021

Losing votes in NA-120 and beyond

September 19, 2017

We should not read too much into the NA-120 by-election, but we should not read too little into it either.

One way to see the contest for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s seat is that NA-120 should have been a massive victory for the PML-N. Just consider the factors working for Kulsoom Nawaz: the N League is in power in Islamabad, where the Election Commission of Pakistan is headquartered. The N League is in power in Lahore, from where all administrative decisions are made. Maryam Sharif got to run the campaign as her own, without old men interfering or telling her what to do. If ever the PML-N was going to deliver a killer blow to its critics, Sunday in NA-120 was a glorious opportunity. Instead the election was a reasonably close race. This should worry the PML-N.

Another way to see the by-election held on Sunday is that if ever someone could have beaten the Sharifs in this seat, Sunday was the given day. The list of PML-N handicaps is significant: a Supreme Court disabled leader, a cancer patient candidate, an establishment that certainly does not seem to like Nawaz Sharif very much, and a host of smaller parties such as the new-fangled Milli Muslim League, seemingly designed to wean the right-leaning PML-N voter away from the Sharifs. Yasmin Rashid ran a great race, but there is no Miss Congeniality prize in politics. Imran Khan has missed many opportunities since 2013, but Sunday in NA-120 was a big one. This should worry the PTI.

The PPP seems to have gotten even less votes than it did in NA-120 during the 2013 election. Less than fifteen hundred was what Faisal Mir could muster in an election which no one expected him to win. But less than 1,500 comes out to about one percent of the total voter turnout. Faisal Mir may be a wonderful person, but he was not a good enough candidate to arrest the growing perception that the PPP is a dead-horse that cannot be beaten back to life in the Punjab. This should worry the PPP.

The Milli Muslim League candidate secured nearly six thousand votes, or four times the PPP’s haul. The candidate had all kinds of money, and the full backing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaatud Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat superstructure of violent and internationally sanctioned groups. In the best case scenario, the political mainstreaming of these groups has been conceived to essentially walk the problem into obscurity. But six thousand votes in a by-election about Nawaz Sharif is not obscurity. It is mainstream. This should worry planners and patrons.

We should not read too much into the NA-120 by-election, but perhaps we should not ignore the worrying signals.

Voter turnout in relatively decent weather, for a massively symbolic national level by-election, was about one-third of the total registered voters. The PTI will crow that this means that the GT Road surge that the Maryam Nawaz camp needed simply did not materialise. This is true. But before there is too much crowing, the Insafians should take a second to note that they too were unable to deliver packed polling stations – despite this election being the fruit of the PTI’s insufferable, but undeniable relentlessness about the Panama Papers. The fact that the PTI could not mobilise voters to celebrate this means it was not able to translate the television ratings win that Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal produced into a win at the voting booths.

The PML-N has needed deep reflection since it came out of the dharna unscathed. But princes and princesses aren’t capable of reflection. This is the curse of genetic transfers of political capital. The cost has been heavy, it got heavier at the NA-120 by-election, and it will continue to be burdensome. The myth of the GT Road surge has been busted. This doesn’t mean that Noonies do not love Nawaz Sharif. It just means that the PML-N could not convert this love into turnout. The shers of the PML-N, if they exist at all in the manner the hardcore Nawazists claim they do, didn’t care enough about their ‘mother’ to turn out and vote for her.

Turnout is a crucial informant of the health of our democracy. High turnout signifies not only direct engagement between politicians and the people, but also the presence of a viable relationship between the issues and the people of the country. Low turnout suggests many things, but vitality of democracy is not one of them. By-elections tend to have lower turnout, but this was no ordinary by-election. Blanket national coverage meant that there were opportunities galore for those that wanted to take them. Neither Imran Khan, the leader of the narrative of change in the country, nor Nawaz Sharif, freshly stung for the third time, sought the stage. Sharif was tending to a sick wife, and leaving the space open for his untested and inexperienced daughter. Khan was unable to manage the jostling for power and positioning within the PTI’s second tier leadership. Just like in NA-246, the PTI may have lost even the best run campaign, but a divided citywide leadership in Karachi then, turned up again in Lahore.

If fragmented second-tier leadership is a crisis within the PTI, what is happening in the mothership of the PML-N is nothing short of a catastrophe. One possible explanation for its middling performance in NA-120 is the succession battle that has pitted the Nawaz Sharif and the Shahbaz Sharif clans against each other. The brothers will likely never acknowledge, nor publicise this rift, but their respective offspring seems disinclined to keep a lid on the conflict. Maryam Sharif replaced Hamza Sharif with Pervaiz Malik as campaign manager, and Hamza reacted by leaving the country. The Maryam camp is of course made up of mostly unelected, unelectable, or barely electable fringe MNAs and MPAs, and senators. Most are there because they have no chance of survival outside of Maryam’s patronage. Some are there to promote their specific agendas. The Hamza camp may not be as well populated, but it comprises those that know and understand the rough and tumble world of constituency politics.

Mian Sharif, the patriarch of the Sharif family was known to have blooded unity into his sons by virtue of the folk logic of farmers’ sons being unbreakable as a unit, but twig-like and easily crushed, when alone. The NA-120 election should be a reminder in that lesson, but neither Maryam Sharif nor cousin Hamza Sharif will heed it. The PML-N’s crisis will continue until there is a decisive change in the party’s leadership. And that change is unlikely to come, given that the party culture leans more sycophancy and acquiescence than wise counsel or dissent.

The PTI’s problems go far beyond the NA-120 loss. There is a more fundamental problem with what it offers: contempt for the electorate. The voters that already love the PTI all turned out in 2013, and probably turned out on Sunday too. The winning formula for an election, however, is not just to get the hardcore supporters to come out, but to get enough people beyond that hardcore. This concept seems difficult for the PTI to fathom. Repeatedly, and increasingly more brazenly, the PTI’s frustration at not being in control of all power in Pakistan manifests itself in expressions of contempt for those staying home, or worse still, God forbid, voting for anyone but the PTI.

Imran Khan is entering his mid sixties – the PTI will not get fresher, nor younger. The Sharif clan seems destined to be the protagonists of a cautionary tale of too much power over too long a period. The PPP is steaming hot mess. Combined, mainstream politics in this country could be heading toward a lower, rather than higher, turnout in 2018. Nothing would suit anti-democrats more than fragmented mainstream parties and low turnout.

Concurrently, the dangerous project of mainstreaming the LeT/JuD/FIF enters a new phase after NA-120. Pakistan’s enemies will leave no stone unturned to try to suggest that the six thousand votes garnered by the project reflect a wider disdain and contempt for international law, being cultivated by the republic.

We should not read too much into the NA-120 by-election, but we should not read too little into it either.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.