The by-election in Daska showed some interesting trends suggesting perhaps that the rules of the political game are changing
Elections have been studied world over to understand the attitudes and concerns of citizens. However, psephology, or the study of elections, is yet to be taken seriously in Pakistan. The indifference towards the subject is tied to a general lack of attention that social sciences suffer in Pakistan. It is also a result of the underdevelopment of representative political institutions given the chequered history of democracy in Pakistan.
In this piece we seek to use the Daska election as a case study to show that rules of the political game are changing in the Punjab. This change may be both welcome and perilous.
The Daska seat fell vacant after the death of PML-N legislator, Syed Iftikhar ul Hassan alias Zahry Shah. The constituency has both urban and rural areas but 70 percent of it consists of localities that can be described as “rurban” (sharing both rural and urban features). Both parties had planned their campaigns by taking into account the local realities.
PTI’s Ali Asjad Malhi had lost in 2018 by a margin of 40,000 votes. In an unconventional move, the PML-N awarded its ticket to Nausheen Iftikhar, a daughter of the deceased lawmaker. While there is a history of daughters following political legacy of their fathers, this is the first time a woman from a religious (Pir) family has entered the political arena. The PML-N could have easily given the ticket to Nausheen’s husband, Sahibzada Murtaza Amin, the current custodian of Allo Mahar (a village and union council of Daska) and an ex-PML-N parliamentarian. The growing influence of Maryam Nawaz and the emotive appeal of being a daughter probably had a role in the choice.
Both parties ran very active campaigns and organised the campaign discourse around a mix of ideological, economic and social themes. The PML-N’s campaign projected Nausheen as standing for “vote ko izzat do”. This national level issue was masterfully crafted with the cultural repertoire of respect (izzat) that is shared and cherished across the Punjab. Nausheen reiterated during her campaign that not giving respect to vote amounted to not showing respect to the voter. She said the result of this was chaos that the Punjab was facing. Social hierarchies of gender and biraderi (kinship) were also used selectively. Not only did Nausheen organise corner meetings with women but during her speeches skillfully connected her election with the discourse of women empowerment. Effort was also made to send a message to all non-landowning biraderis that everyone was a chaudhary in the eyes of the party.
The core focus of PTI’s electoral discourse was on anti-corruption and promises of development. On the tactical plane, it devised a two-pronged, distinct strategy for rural and urban voters. For urban voters, it stitched together an electoral coalition of anti-PML-N factions after successfully convincing an independent influential candidate to withdraw in favour of the PTI man.
In rural areas it mixed its promise of delivery with affective rendering of a Jat-based kinship solidarity. It tried to suture together a narrative of the Jat majority feeling hurt because of the decades-long dominance of a Syed family on local politics. It was a mobilisational strategy imbued with emotive appeal for a large number of landowning biraderis to support a Jat candidate against a Pir/Syed.
The contrast was glaring and counterintuitive. The PTI, known for a slogan of change, used traditional tactics and optics to attract the rural elite that is usually seen as crucial for winning elections.
The polling day remained peaceful but unlike previous by-elections the voter turnout was outstanding and 44 percent of the voters exercised their right to vote. Notwithstanding, that it was not a holiday, the fear of Covid and threat of violence was ever-present and voters were asked to poll twice in six weeks, such turnout is unprecedented. The station-wise polling results indicate some interesting insights around urban/rural and male/female divides.
Out of the 360 polling stations, the PTI won 112 polling stations (31percent). Given the fact that 70 percent of the constituency was rural, this means that the PTI performed below expectations in the rural areas as well.
Furthermore, the PTI fared badly with respect to women voters. Out of 106 women’s polling stations the PTI won 23 (21 percent) while on men’s side it won in 35 (33 percent). Likewise, out of total polled women voters, PML-N got 57 percent while PTI secured 40.6 percent votes. The difference between both parties in term of women’s votes is almost 17 percent while the difference between men’s votes in comparison is just seven percent (PML-N 50 percent, PTI 43 percent). It is clear that women voted in higher numbers for the PML-N. The results show that rural voters, in general, and women voters, in particular, voted in higher numbers for PML-N despite the fact that the PTI launched a separate strategy for rural voters.
The question of women’s participation and vote can also be seen in the context of Dr Shandana Khan and Dr Ali Cheema’s insightful research. Unlike previous researchers, they have shown that women voters, as a group, are more responsive to public service delivery concerns, more favourable to women politicians and are showing signs of an increasing autonomy. Although their work is limited to metropolitan Lahore, we may be able to infer, given the Daska result that certain trends could potentially be spreading or prevalent in non-metropolitan locales too.
It has been noted that rural social structure and politics are undergoing a transformation and voters of lower classes and artisan groups are making more independent voting decisions. Voting trends are increasingly highlighting that voters are not captive audiences any longer and respond to different situations and circumstances accordingly.
Lastly, the Daska election has shown that all stakeholders, including political parties and the state institutions, are realising a buildup of political pressure from below. Political parties are thus trying to develop pragmatic-cum-ideological electoral strategies to tap into these voter pools. The ECP’s decision to send a strong message to all stakeholders is also indicative of a rising realisation in state elites with respect to developing a fair electoral system. The electoral trends in Daska are pointing that rules of the political game are changing. The real question is how prepared is the political system to accommodate these changes.
Asad ur Rehman is a doctoral candidate in political sociology @ EHESS, Paris and Abdul Sattar is a lecturer of Pakistan studies at FAST University, Lahore