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February 23, 2021

Lesson from by-elections

National

February 23, 2021

While we still await the final outcome of NA-75, Daska, following a strong statement from the Election Commission of Pakistan over the missing of 20 presiding officers and the mysterious silence from the Punjab police and administration, the recent by-elections in all the four provinces could be an eye-opener for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and its allies, particularly before the March 3 Senate elections.

There are few lessons for the opposition as well as for the ECP to learn before the high profile local bodies elections as per Supreme Court orders unless the government has other plans following the results of six by-elections, two in Punjab, two in Sindh, one in Peshin and one in Nowshera, which the ruling party lost. As for the three by-elections on NA seats, the PTI and the PPP won one each.

The ECP has a lot more to do to establish its credibility as the most independent institution as it’s a key if democracy has to take roots in Pakistan. Without free and fair elections, democracy is meaningless. In Pakistan, we have rarely witnessed elections acceptable to all parties. Outside and hidden interference during the elections is more than evident and except for the 1970 elections and to a large extent the 2008 elections, serious questions have been raised.

The ECP is currently under pressure before the March 3 Senate elections over the issue of secret ballot but the position it has taken before the Supreme Court is regarded as “bold” but it all depends on the final decision of the court. Its statement already made the NA-75 election controversial and though the ruling party has exerted all kinds of pressure on the ECP to announce the result as it claimed victory, it will not be easy to take the decision without proper inquiry.

In all probability, it may have to go for re-polling in NA-75 or at least in 20 polling stations but would not announce its result prior to that. In the wake of the rising tension between the PTI and the PML-N, the result of NA-75 almost became “do or die” for both. After the ECP statements which generally were not welcome by the ruling party as they have exerted pressure on them to declare victory of the PTI candidate, the possibility of re-election cannot be ruled out.

Similarly, the result of Nowshera, an upset for the PTI and particularly for the former chief minister, KP, Pervez Khattak, once again exposed the ruling party’s internal conflict despite PK's belated reaction and accusation of rigging. The PTI and KP government have already conceded defeat and sacked one of their ministers. Bad days continued for the most vocal opposition party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) which lost one NA seat to the PTI. The JUI-F internal rift could be one of the reasons after a group led by Maulana Sheerani, Hafiz Hussain Ahmad and others revolted against Maulana Fazlur Rehman. The recent result of NA-45, which the PTI has won in the by-election, had been won by the JUI-F in 2018.

The opposition parties can take the credit for the heavy turnout, something which we normally don’t see in the by-polls but due to the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s public meetings and charged and emotional speeches and unprecedented price hike, people cast their vote despite the Covid-19 prevalence.

Irrespective of the final outcome of NA-75, one thing is more than clear now and that is the PML-N vote bank is more or less intact and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s narrative has not caused much damage as his opponents including some defence analysts portrayed. The PTI has a lot more to learn than the alliance of 10-parties from these by-polls. Internal differences have further sharpened, which could be judged from the controversy over awarding Senate tickets including the one to high profile Hafeez Sheikh from Islamabad. Any setback or upset on this seat could raise serious questions over NA’s confidence in the prime minister. The PTI is also facing problems in Sindh after awarding a ticket to Saifullah Abro on the one hand and on the other to Federal Minister Faisal Vawda, whose fate still hangs in the balance despite the delay in the decision of the ECP over his disqualification.

Problems still persist for the PTI in Balochistan as despite the PTI withdrawing the ticket from tycoon Abdul Qadir, he is in the race as an independent candidate with the vocal support of Chief Minister Jam Kamal. The PTI’s internal issues are far more serious than that of the PML-N and there are still at least three groups in Punjab, something which is keeping the PM’s trust in Chief Minister Usman Buzdar but the former sensing the possible defection sought support not only from his ally, Chaudhrys of Gujrat, but also to get his former No 2, disqualified leader Jehangir Tareen.

For the opposition alliance, i.e. the PDM, winning all six PA seats where by-elections were held including one from the PTI stronghold has certainly given a new life line in otherwise a low key movement so far aimed to oust the PM, Imran Khan. It also showed that the change from its earlier decision of boycott of polls and resignations paid off. However, irrespective of the outcome of NA-75, the PTI has gained in the PML-N stronghold and by winning NA-45, Kurram Agency, which was won by the JUI-F in 2018, clearly indicates that the ruling PTI still has strong roots. It appears as the controversy over NA-75 will continue for some time even if the ECP decides in either way but there is a lesson to be learnt for all from these by-elections and violence in NA-75, and the arrest of opposition leader in Sindh Haleem Adil Sheikh during the Malir by-election indicate rising political tension which resulted in the killing of two innocent peo-ple in Daska.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo News, The News and Jang

Twitter:@MazharAbbasGEO