Friday March 24, 2023

PML-N’s ‘whitewash’ in AJK

July 27, 2021

The biggest surprise of Azad and Jammu Kashmir elections was not the comfortable victory of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf but by getting a simple majority with 25 seats, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf set the tone for the future political scenario. As per the past tradition the ruling party in Islamabad also wins polls in AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The surprise package was the PML-N’s near ‘whitewash’, which caused the upset. Though PMLN chief campaigner Maryam Nawaz has rejected the result, it would be interesting to see the party’s future line of action. The PML-N came third behind the Pakistan People’s Party, which bagged 11 seats and will have its leader of the opposition against the PMLN.

I could be wrong but I don’t see any major or massive ‘rigging factor’ in the AJK elections unless the opposition has enough evidence to prove the allegations beyond reasonable doubt. Yes, there had been cases of irregularities and the Election Commission’s failure to enforce its code of conduct. Foul language remained the hallmark of the campaign but the EC AJK did not take any action. The case of Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur was a classical example and the PTI government should have withdrawn him from the campaign.

All the key players, including three former prime ministers, retained their seats including former premier Raja Farooq Haider of PML-N, Barrister Sultan Mahmood (now from PTI) and Sardar Atiq (Muslim Conference).

The result was a sigh of relief for Prime Minister Imran Khan-led PTI, after their back-to-back defeat in the by-elections in Pakistan. There is no doubt that Maryam Nawaz had campaigned well for the party and gave hype with her aggressive tone but there are some genuine reasons behind her failure in retaining the PML-N government in AJK. What was more shocking for her was that it even fell behind the PPP.

The PTI is now in a position to form the government on its own but would accommodate not only the Muslim Conference of former PM Sardar Atiq but also MQM (Pakistan) which had withdrawn all its candidates in support of PTI under an agreement and secondly, because of humiliating defeat of its arch rival PML-N. IK not only sold his narrative well and continued his attacks on Nawaz Sharif, in particular calling him Modi ka yar but also took a bold stance by flouting a proposal that if Kashmir was liberated through UN resolutions and it became Pakistan’s, he would give them the option to become independent if they wanted.

But can the AJK result be used by the PTI or IK as the launching pad for the forthcoming local bodies elections, which are now overdue both under the law and also in line of the Supreme Court’s decision.

On the other hand, there is lot to look at for the PML-N to the ‘near whitewash’ as clearly the differences between the two narratives within the party are visible in the complete absence of PML President Shehbaz Sharif in the campaign and its Vice-President Maryam Nawaz over aggressive posture, which particularly in the AJK context proved counter-productive.

It was also clear that despite hard-hitting speeches, which draw a big and charged crowd, there was complete silence in the AJK after the shocking defeat. It was but natural that the PMLN would not accept the result but what is the way forward for them? Do they have enough evidence to prove rigging and secondly, will they agitate and if so for how long?

There is no doubt that the PML-N was still the biggest party in the Punjab and its vote bank there by and large was intact largely because of the poor selection of chief minister’s nominee and internal differences within the PTI but the narrative, which could be easily sold in Pakistan, couldn’t be sold in the AJK for a variety of reasons.

Some believe that the PML-N and for that matter even the PPP should not have given such a hype to the AJK elections, knowing fully well that in the AJK and GB polls, the party in control of Islamabad always has an extra advantage. It turned out to be such a charged election that it nearly became a ‘do or die’ kind of polls. There was also no point in selling an ‘anti-establishment’ narrative in the AJK, which for the voters in the AJK Valley was difficult to sell.

Thus, it’s a failure of the Nawaz-Maryam narrative in the AJK and could further cause a dent within the PML-N. The complete absence of Shehbaz and Co. clearly set the tone and its political impact could come in the coming months in the Punjab as well. Only time will tell whether they will be able to repair or control the damage. The best option left for the PML-N is to have serious soul searching from the day when the Pakistan Democratic Movement was split on petty issues and differences widened with the passage of time and sharpened to an extent that the PPP went to the other side and softened its ‘anti-establishment’ stance, which was also reflected in the AJK elections.

The blunder which the PML-N and PDM did was that they pushed the PPP to the wall instead of resolving their differences. It is true that the PPP has to share its prime responsibility for what it did in the Senate elections but putting it as a ‘condition’ to rejoin the PDM was a bit harsh. The main beneficiary of the differences within the opposition was none other than Imran Khan and the PTI.

Can the PMLN and PPP revive their relationship and join hands in the AJK Assembly? What will be the role of Mian Shehbaz Sharif after this defeat? The PDM is almost dead and cracks within the opposition helped the PTI government to overcome its flaws and blunders.

Pakistan People’s Party, which stood second, launched its campaign in an organized manner as they knew that they could come second through a better choice of candidates and they succeeded. The PPP was the first which named their candidates but PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto went to the US not before he addressed at least some major rallies.

However, GB and AJK elections once again raised questions in regard to the set pattern of why the party in power always wins and has an edge over rivals. All the parties should sit and discuss the issue and one suggestion was that polls should be held along with Pakistan’s general elections but for this the AJK Constitution needs to be amended.

Secondly, local parties need to be encouraged and even if Pakistan’s mainstream parties are present there, they should give their local chapters authority and power to pick their nominees and after elections nominate the PM in consultation with the party head in Pakistan.

We are still far behind in setting the tradition of accepting defeat with grace, using civilized language in the campaigns and going for soul searching.

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