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Thursday December 02, 2021

Upcoming Senate polls make by-elections do-or-die clash

February 21, 2021

ISLAMABAD: The crucial forthcoming elections to half of the Senate have made by-polls a do-or-die struggle, adding more fuel to the fire of the current political tension between the government and opposition. Since every vote in the electoral college, comprising the national and provincial assemblies, carries weight in the Senate elections, every political party is trying even more desperately than usual to win each seat contested in the by-polls at all costs.

Winning or losing a seat in the Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies might not make any major difference in the Senate polls from the two provinces because of the numerical positions of the parliamentary parties in these legislatures. But when it comes to the National Assembly, the gain or loss of even a single National Assembly seat could have major implications.

Party positions in the NA are particularly important given that the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) joint nominee, former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, has thrown down the gauntlet to the government candidate Dr Hafeez Sheikh in Islamabad in what could be a close fight. Of all the Senate seats being fought now, this one has attracted the most public attention.

While Gilani is quietly lobbying among the members of the electoral college, Hafeez Sheikh has also become activated and has approached certain voters who are suspected to have an unfavourable view about his candidacy. Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar and a set of federal ministers are canvassing for him. Prime Minister Imran Khan has made teams of cabinet members to contact the treasury as well as opposition MPs to garner maximum support for Hafeez Sheikh. This shows how serious the government is for his victory.

When the political stakes are so high, the electoral battle has the potential to become even more violent -- as it was in NA-75 Daska (Sialkot). In this bloody showdown, the administration proved its incompetence. It was a silent spectator and made no effort to curb the violence as daredevil gunmen in the area resorted to indiscriminate firing in a broad daylight with complete impunity.

The mayhem in Daska was not unexpected in view of the ever-deepening political hostilities between the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). This state of affairs called for stringent measures by the administration to avert what eventually happened in the constituency. In this context, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government made far better arrangements to ensure smooth and orderly polling for a Nowshera constituency of the provincial assembly. The Sindh government had also taken suitable measures to provide a conducive atmosphere for the by-elections that had been held there earlier.

Just three days before the Daska episode, there was a firing incident in Malir, Karachi, during the polling for a seat of the Sindh Assembly. The leader of the opposition in the provincial legislature, Haleem Adil Sheikh, and his comrades were booked for the incident and are still behind bars. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) retained the seat, which had fallen vacant due to the death of its legislator.

Traditionally, sitting governments win by-elections because of the incumbency factor -- although there are also instances to the contrary. The Sialkot seat fell vacant due to the death of a PML-N member of the National Assembly (MNA). If the PML-N eventually wins it, it will just retain the seat. But if it loses, it will be a gain for the PTI in the electoral college. Similarly, the Wazirabad (Gujranwala) seat of the Punjab Assembly stood vacant because of the death of a PML-N member. The party retained the seat as the widow of the deceased member has won. Conversely, the Nowshera seat of the KP assembly had fallen vacant due to the death of a PTI legislator. It was taken away in a major upset by the PML-N candidate, who was supported by the PDM parties. While this victory has political importance, it will not make any difference in the Senate election from the KP legislature. However, the Kurram Agency seat of the National Assembly is a gain by the PTI as it had been vacated by a Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) member. Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) under Sikandar Sultan Raja has this time proved to be a different entity despite facing tremendous pressure from the political parties. Despite this, it refused to buckle down under any political pressure. It tried to be even-handed in the test that the fiercely contested by-elections threw up. First, the chief election commissioner turned down a formal PML-N request to extend the polling time in NA-75. Then he ordered the withholding of the results of the constituency till an in-depth investigation into reports that presiding officers and bags of votes had gone missing. The ECP statement stopping the announcement of the results questioned the weakness of the administration and condemned the unavailability at the time of the Punjab police chief, chief secretary, Gujranwala commissioner and Sialkot deputy commissioner despite repeated efforts to reach them. Earlier, the ECP, in its synopsis filed with the Supreme Court, had opposed voting via an open ballot in the Senate elections as proposed by the government. It stuck to its stand when the apex court summoned the CEC and others to hear them personally.