En masse by-elections aren’t snap polls but could prove to be a referendum on the performance and legitimacy of the incumbent government
mere six months after coming into power, the then prime minister Imran Khan spoke at a joint interview with a select group of news show anchors. The media strategy was a hallmark of Khan’s tenure, and one he has used with different types of media influencers since being ousted.
Still radiating the shiny new feel of acquired power, Khan had said that his wife had to remind him that he was the prime minister. It was among the many remarks discussed on the mainstream, including the fact that he learned about the devaluation of the rupee from television. Or that he was prepared to hold mid-term elections if needed. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif welcomed the statement. “This would be a blessing for the people of Pakistan,” he had said during his umpteenth appearance before an accountability court. On the other hand, ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan said the statement was irresponsible, “Early polls was not only a way of escape but would also plunge the country into further economic turmoil.”
Consider the context: the then opposition parties had described the 2018 elections as massively rigged with JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman in favour of a fresh election. The two major mainstream political parties - the PPP and the PML-N - decided to stay in the assemblies and held sway, and life, seemingly, had moved on.
Too many political crises have passed under the bridge for anyone to remember, and the truth is, subsequent events have demonstrated that Imran Khan’s mid-term election card was rather flimsy. Khan himself chose an easy vote of confidence after Hafeez Sheikh’s loss in the Senate elections of 2021 and dismissed repeated calls for an early election by various opposition leaders, including Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz. Khan is now on the other side of the fence, demanding a fresh election while the Shahbaz-led unity government digs in its heels.
No government would voluntarily submit to the toss and gamble of an election or easily vacate a seat in power given the wheeling dealing, alliances, constituency calculations and billions of rupees spent on electioneering. It is a truth universally acknowledged that no prime minister in Pakistan has completed his/ her term, nor has he/ she called for snap polls.
In recent history, what happened to former British prime minister Theresa May is a cautionary tale. Elected in 2015, May ruled out early elections in 2016 but surprised political observers in a post-Easter address in front of Ten Downing by announcing a snap poll three years before general elections were due. Buoyed by favourable polls and desirous of a stronger parliamentary majority for Brexit negotiations, May took the gamble and lost it.
The PTI has tried the mass resignation route in 2014 and 2016, and it didn’t work then either for the same reason that the PDM flirted with the idea in 2021 but dismissed it – why hand over a seat so hardly won with no guarantee of being voted back?
In Pakistan, the current and the last governments have had razor-thin majorities. If Imran Khan’s majority in parliament was flimsy, Sharif’s is flimsier still – based on the votes of parties known to take their cues from the GHQ. This is why, in a real democracy, a thin majority would’ve been a cause for concern given how difficult this should’ve made lawmaking. During Imran Khan’s tenure, a combination of mysterious phone calls, ordinances and the timing of parliamentary sessions made passing laws easier.
In Shahbaz Sharif’s case, it is the absence of PTI lawmakers, who chose to resign instead of legitimising the current government through parliament after the vote of no confidence that ousted Imran Khan. The resignations haven’t passed the smell test yet and their status remains in limbo. The PTI has tried the mass resignation route in 2014 and 2016, and it didn’t work then either for the same reason that the PDM flirted with the idea in 2021 but dismissed it – why hand over a seat so hardly won with no guarantee of being voted back?
In any case, legitimacy is the key here. All general elections, barring 1970 and 2008, have been marred by the question of establishment interference and accusations of rigging. If the PTI’s 131 resignations – except the 30-odd that are said to be reluctant to exit parliament – are to be accepted, this in effect would be a referendum on the performance and legitimacy of the incumbent government in a house in which 272 members arrive through a direct election. En masse by-elections aren’t a snap poll, but near enough.
Each by-election will be seen as a vote on Imran Khan’s narrative of an illegtimate, corrupt and imported government while the Shahbaz government seeks to defend soaring inflation. After all, the unity government took power ostensibly to fix the economy Khan had broken. If Khan loses seats, he will cry foul; if Shahbaz loses seats, it will trigger more political instability. After all, even just the 20 by-elections due for the Punjab provincial assembly in July – despite reports that Hamza Shahbaz will likely get the numbers for a more comfortable majority – will also be viewed from the lens of legitimacy. The conduct of the Daska by-poll is a case in point.
Even though there are still groups within the ruling coalition parties that agree with Khan that fresh elections are the only way to establish legitimacy, no electronic or legal mechanism to ensure a free and fair election matters until every political stakeholder – including the judiciary and the establishment, as former information minister Fawwad Chaudhry pointed out – agree to the rules of the game. That goes for by-elections too.
The writer is director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA