Any ruling party anywhere in a democratic country would seriously be concerned at the series of electoral losses in a span of a few months. Not so the PTI – or so it seems.
The ruling party has lost not one, not two but 10 by-elections since February this year and these losses are not confined to just one province. It has lost in rural areas as well as urban constituencies.
Punjab is understandable – even though for a party ruling both in the province as well as at the federal level, this is not so common given the history of by-elections in Pakistan. Halfway through its term, the ruling party is usually in a far more advantageous position to dole out benefits in every respect – jobs, development work, resolution of issues at thana/ kacheri level, school admissions and others. That is why winning a by-election is no measure of the popularity of the party in power.
The loss in Nowshera remains the most embarrassing for the PTI. After all, it is the home constituency of Defence Minister and former CM Pervez Khattak. Probably the most influential politician in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Khattak would not even have considered this election as worth full resources. As it turned out, the ruling party was over-confident of its popularity, not just in KP but across the country.
Losing a by-election is bad enough, but what do u say when the party not only fails to retain its seat but comes fifth out of six main contenders? This is what happened in the Karachi NA-249 constituency. After Nowshera, losing so badly in Karachi is perhaps the biggest loss for the ruling party in the recent by-elections. The party won 14 seats from Karachi in the 2018 elections. Without those 14 NA seats, Imran Khan would not have managed the vote of confidence as the prime minister. Its coalition partner MQM won six seats in the 2018 elections. In the recent by-elections in Karachi, the MQM is last while the PTI is second last. Doesn’t say much for the popularity of the ruling coalition.
In almost all cases, the margin has widened in favour of the opposition parties – except perhaps Wazirabad. In less than three years in power, the erosion in popularity is significant. There are two main reasons to explain this. First, this reinforces the widely held perception of rigging in the 2018 elections in favour of the PTI. That included both pre-poll as well as Election Day rigging on a large scale. Several potential winning candidates from other parties were forced to join the PTI, especially in southern Punjab and Balochistan.
Election Day 2018 was marred with incidents of ballot stuffing, but more importantly the process of vote counting left much to be desired. Finally, the breakdown of the RTS – the electronic system to communicate results – still remains a mystery. There was also the deliberate campaign against the political opposition, especially the PML-N, several of whose leaders were disqualified before the elections on one pretext or another. By the time elections were held on July 25, 2018 both Mian Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz were in jail. Not an ideal environment for any party to go into polls.
The second possible reason for the PTI’s losses in the recent by-elections is its poor performance over the last three years. With unprecedented price increases of essential items, job losses in millions, and millions more going below the poverty line, people across Pakistan rightly feel disappointed with the ruling party. All major macro economic indicators have consistently worsened since the party came to power in August 2018.
Growth nosedived from a very healthy 5.8 percent to a negative 0.4 percent last year. This year it is expected to be in the range between 1.5 percent and 2 percent – still far below what is reasonable for a country like Pakistan. Per capita GDP has gone down almost 10 percent. Rarely in their history have Pakistanis faced a worse economic situation than the one witnessed in the last three years. Add the scams – sugar, wheat, LNG, medicines, oil etc – and it fits in perfectly for a failed government.
Disillusionment has been growing over the last few years. This is a direct consequence of the expectations that were built by the party before coming into power. All those promises were never fulfilled. And with the passage of time, people started to lose hope. Once that hopeless situation sets in, it gets reflected when people get to express their displeasure at the polling stations.
Imran Khan claims that he understands the West better than anyone else. If he understands Western countries as well as he claims, he should know that the leader of any Western democracy would have dissolved parliament in similar conditions. By the look of things, there is no such possibility in Pakistan. On the contrary, Imran Khan and his cabinet colleagues continue to believe in their popularity.
Just about two years remain before the general elections in 2023. The last year of a government is election year when all political parties, including the ruling party, will go into the election campaign mode. As such, the government has just about 12-15 months at its disposal to start delivering results according to the expectations of the people. It will have to significantly improve its service delivery in order to regain the confidence of the people. That performance improvement will only be possible if it is ably led by the PM.
The time for excuses is long gone as reflected in the recent by-elections. Whether the PM understands the frustration of the people is something we will only know in the next few months. Even more important is whether he has the capacity to manage the economic and other challenges and whether he has a quality team at his disposal. If the past is any indicator, the chances of a revival are not so bright.
The writer is the spokesperson for Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, and former governor Sindh.
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