Saturday February 04, 2023

Analysing NA-249 by-election

May 02, 2021

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) caused an upset in the high profile by-election in NA-249 marred with a series of allegations against the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the winning party. The party came fifth in the 2018 general elections.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which won the last election with a narrow margin of nearly 700 votes, faced humiliation in the by-election. If PML (N) in the last election protested against PTI it was the other way round this time. But now, PML (N) fears foul play from PPP and ECP.

Delay in the announcement of result also caused doubts. Would it be fair to blame the ECP alone? The fact remains the political parties also failed in mobilising the voters which clearly reflects from the low turnout.

Let’s analyse what really went wrong and how far the allegations are based on facts.

It is true that political parties seriously lack the culture of accepting ‘defeat’ but in NA-249, at least four parties, including the party which came fourth or fifth in the race, have claimed victory which was quite unprecedented. This clearly shows that we are still not ready to accept the result other than victory, and we have not seen parties or leaders addressing their own failures.

I am still in search of a party which publicly claimed that they did not come up to the expectations of the voters and would do better next time. It is because of the fact that the political parties revolved around personalities who themselves were not ‘democratically elected.’

It was a low turnout contest which made the election wide open for all the parties in the race. The election from the voter’s perspective was contested more on local and civic issues rather than on political issues. Shortage of water in the area became a common issue and PPP claimed that they got the votes because people knew that if someone could resolve the issue it would be the Sindh government. But, the criticism was why they failed in the last 12 years.

Similarly, PML (N) which has a strong vote bank in the area since long and had also claimed victory in 2018 when its President Shahbaz Sharif lost by merely 700 votes against PTI Faisal Vawda, questioned defeat and its candidate Miftah Ismail feared foul play in delaying results by the ECP for no solid reasons.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) retained third position as in 2018, and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) showed remarkable improvement as compared to its performance in the last election. But, claiming victory looked a bid overrated. The TLP could have been in a better position had it not been banned and leaders were not in jail.

The party which really faced defeat was the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and it was expected for more than one reasons. From the day one, they faced internal revolt against the nomination of Amjad Afredi, a local and a party worker. The nomination decision was opposed by the local party MPA Shahzad who even resigned in protest

Secondly, PTI have at least three to four groups which directly affected its campaign. Thirdly, no prominent leaders, including party’s central office-bearers who are not MNAs or MPAs, could come to campaign. Fourthly, the people in the constituency were not happy with the former MNA for not visiting the constituency regularly.

The Election Commission has its own problems and some of its decisions raised questions. For instance, even before the polling day, there were serious doubts about the turnout for some valid reasons but the ECP turned down all the pleas for changing the date as even in the past by-elections were delayed for months. Almost all the parties were in favour of extending the date due to the holy month of Ramazan.

Secondly, it was also strange that they did not even consider holding polls on the working day despite knowing well that majority of the voters in this constituency were labourers including daily wagers. Turnout would have been much better if elections were held week or two weeks after Eid because all the mainstream parties were in the race. Another failure of the ECP was the delay in announcing the result which always created doubts, particularly if the delay took place in urban constituencies where polling stations were not too far. Even if the total 20 or 21 percent votes were cast, it took nearly 10 to 12 hours to announce the unofficial result. The ECP could have easily extended the timing of the polling in view of astonishing heat in Karachi at least till 8 pm so that more people could cast their vote after Iftar.

However, one must also give credit to ECP for holding polls in a peaceful atmosphere as there was not a single incident of any serious clash throughout the campaign and even on the polling day. Although, one can accept that neither ministers should be allowed in the constituency during the election nor any development work at that time, but preventing the MNAs, senators or MPAs from campaigning was a bid harsh and ECP should review it. There were also not any major complaints from any party against the administration i.e. police and Rangers which did an excellent job in maintaining law and order during the whole election from campaign to polling day.

We generally lack a culture of accepting results, and though some drastic changes were brought in the electoral process like holding elections under an interim setup, empowering ECP, appointment of head and members of ECP, but one thing which still creates doubts was the role of local administration and presiding or returning officers.

Secondly, the Election Tribunals which were supposed to give verdict within four months took years in disposing of the election petitions. The political parties or candidates also showed lack of interest in filing the complaints. They only raised hue and cry on TV and on social media.

It is still time for the political parties to bring drastic ‘electoral reforms’ and then develop the culture of accepting results as the ECP, which comes under heavy criticism after each election, was constituted by the government and the opposition. So, why hue and cry is being raised?

Finally, the questions regarding ‘hidden hand’ and political engineering also create doubts. This in itself needs a long debate as the government is trying to reform the ECP and the electoral process through electronic voting machines. If the political parties raise serious questions over the conduct of by-elections in Daska or Baldia, one wonders what would happen when the local bodies elections would be held.

It is time to develop a political culture within and outside the political parties if we really want a transparent political and democratic system in the county.

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