A change of fortunes?

August 1, 2021

The PTI victory in the Sialkot by-election following the AJK landslide lifts the spirits of party workers

A change of fortunes?

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) victory in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) elections has provided a much-needed boost to the morale of the party’s supporters and coalition partners.

For its part, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has surprised many, winning 11 seats to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) six.

At the heels of the AJK drubbing, the PML-N faced another setback in PP-38 Sialkot where its candidate, Tariq Subhani, lost the Provincial Assembly seat his brother Khush Akhtar Subhani had won in 2018, to PTI’s Ahsan Saleem Baryar.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has congratulated the successful candidates and thanked the people of AJK for placing their trust in the PTI. “I will focus on bringing the people out of poverty through Ehsaas and Kamyab Pakistan programmes; and establish accountability and transparency in government. As an ambassador for Kashmir, I will continue to raise a voice on all international forums, including the United Nations to ensure that the international community fulfills its commitment on self-determination for the Kashmiri people through a UN-sponsored plebiscite,” he said.

Most political analysts believe that as far as its victory in Kashmir is concerned, the PTI strategists should not make the mistake of interpreting it as a sign that they are once again the most popular party in the country. A look back at the history of AJK elections makes it clear that the party in power in Islamabad has always managed to garner a majority in the AJK.

In 1996, the PPP, then leading the government in Islamabad, had won 24 seats. In 2001 and 2006, the Muslim Conference and its allies backed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid and Gen Musharraf had bagged a majority of seats. The PPP had returned to power in Islamabad in 2008 and won a majority seats in the 2011 AJK polls. In 2016, the PML-N, with a government in Islamabad, had won an unprecedented 32 seats and the PPP representation had been reduced to five. Now, the PTI has won 25 seats.

The PTI had until recently been losing every by-election in the Punjab, even in the constituencies it had won in the 2018 general election. Its victory in the PP-38 Sialkot changes that. If the party wants to stay in power, it will have to serve the people of Pakistan better besides restoring the voters’ confidence in the electoral system. Electronic machines alone cannot do that. The PTI will also have to overcome the economic crisis and improve its image among the masses.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the main PML-N crowd puller, ran a vibrant campaign and held impressive public gatherings in various parts of the AJK. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also addressed several rallies before he left for the US. Hs sister Aseefa Bhutto Zardari then kept the campaign alive.

PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif’s absence from the campaign was intriguing. PML-N insiders say that he did not want to run the campaign for two reasons. “Maryam Nawaz and her bandwagon wanted to run the campaign around the anti-establishment sentiment. Therefore, Shehbaz kept away from the campaign,” a PML-N stalwart told The News on Sunday. “Also, it was obvious that the PTI will win the elections in Kashmir because of the federal government and the influence of other institutions. Shehbaz, therefore, did not want to overstate the importance of the AJK polls.”

Immediately after the announcement of the results, the PPP and the PML-N once again alleged that the government had rigged the polls. Maryam tweeted: “I have not accepted the AJK election results. Neither have I accepted the results of the 2018 general elections, nor this fake government. The PML-N will soon announce a strategy on this shameful rigging in the AJK polls.” However, before the PML-N could evolve a strategy for a protest campaign under Maryam’s guidance, she tested positive for Covid-19 and quarantined herself.

Speaking later at a press conference, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former AJK prime minister Raja Farooq Haider and PML-N secretary general Ahsan Iqbal, too, rejected the results. They claimed that the votes polled for them had been stolen.

A change of fortunes?

The PTI had been losing every by-election in the Punjab, even in the constituencies it had won in the general election. Their victory in Sialkot has changed that. If the party wants to stay in power, it will have to serve the people of Pakistan better and restore the voters’ confidence in the electoral system.

“We reject the election results. We will launch a movement against this rigging in Pakistan as well as across the world and expose Imran Khan,” Haider said. He claimed the PTI had also used money to buy votes. “The AJK was deprived of its rights. We will gather in Islamabad to tell the world about this massive rigging,” he said. Ahsan Iqbal said the aim of the protest was not just to highlight the rigging but also to end the practice. He claimed that the alleged rigging was part of an international conspiracy to alienate the people of the AJK from Pakistan and to fan anti-Pakistan sentiments in the region. “Paving the way for an independent Kashmiri state is on the imperialists’ agenda. Prime Minister Imran Khan has spilled the beans by saying that his government will hold a second referendum in the Valley to allow the Kashmiris to choose between Pakistan and independence.”

However, the PTI leadership, including Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, said that the people of Kashmir had rejected Nawaz Sharif’s narrative. Chaudhry also asked PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto to resign from their party positions. “The people of Kashmir have rejected Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s narrative,” Fawad said. “The [recent] meeting of Nawaz Sharif and RAW agent [National Security Adviser of Afghanistan] Hamdullah Mohib shocked the Kashmiris. That shock is reflected in the election results,” he said. He said a PML-N candidate’s statement about seeking help from India was unfortunate. He said it was surprising that the PML-N had not issued a clarification about whether Nawaz Sharif had met the Afghan NSA with his party’s permission. The minister said that Prime Minister Imran Khan was the first leader to raise his voice for the people of Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. The information minister said that Prime Minister Khan would take a decision about the next AJK leadership — president, prime minister and speaker of the Legislative Assembly. He said PM Khan would address a session of the AJK Legislative Assembly on August 5.

PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto has alleged that the Election Commission failed to take action against gross violations of electoral rules by the PTI. In a tweet, he said: “Despite this, the PPP emerged as the largest opposition party in AJK with 11 seats, up from 3 seats last time, incredibly proud of PPP-AJK for putting up a good fight.”

Endorsing the stance of his party’s chairman, PPP Senator Taj Haider said: “There was pre-poll, polling-day and post-poll rigging in the AJK. The polling started at 8am after the PPP had lodged two complaints at 7:40am. I personally filed 40 complaints but not even a single one was addressed by the election commission.”

He said the only solution to the problem related to election and allegations of rigging was the transparent implementation of election rules and complete independence of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Asked about electronic voting machines, he said: “I oppose the idea because it will not solve the problem, rather it will add to it. Technology is good, but it creates problems in Pakistan. Remember what happened in the 2018 Election when the RTS stopped working. We received some of the results several weeks after the polls.”

A change of fortunes?

Senator Haider says a simple confidence building measure is to count the ballots in the presence of the polling agents and provide them signed copies of the results. “Last time, many polling agents were pushed out of the counting process and not given signed copies of Form 45.”

Being runners-up in AJK might benefit the PPP in the Punjab and the KP, where its supporters have been in low spirits. This performance might boost their morale and help the party bring back some of its displeased supporters.

The PPP can also exploit their performance in Kashmir to attract more ‘electables’ to its ranks. It is known that several politicians in the Punjab, the KP and Balochistan are interested their constituencies only. Some of them are dissatisfied with the PTI either on account of its performance in government or for being ignored by the party hierarchy. There is a similar set of influential members in the PML-N, mainly because of its anti-establishment stance.

The electable can finally see some flair in the PPP. Some might choose to jump ship and join the PPP before the 2023 general election. It may be recalled that former president Asif Ali Zardari’s had met several electables during his recent visit to the Punjab.

As for the PML-N, it may have to rethink its strategy in the Punjab to keep its supporters motivated.

The writer is a senior    journalist, teacher of   journalism, writer and   researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

A change of fortunes?