The electables’ dilemma

With just a year left in the assemblies’ term, what do the upcoming by-elections mean for the ‘electables’?

The electables’ dilemma


he upcoming by-elections in 20 constituencies of the Punjab Assembly have placed most candidates and potential contestants, especially those known as ‘electables’, in a difficult situation. For one, they don’t know how long they will be in the assembly if they win the vote. At most, there is a year left before the next general elections. On the other hand, the provincial assembly is going through a severe constitutional crisis because of the ongoing tug of war between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) that may result in its premature dissolution.

What makes by-polls one of the most important events in the Punjab’s political history is their impact on the provincial government. Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz’s future as the provincial chief executive depends directly on the results of these by-elections. The PML-N needs at least 16 seats out of the 20 to ensure that Hamza can continue in the office.

The PTI-led provincial government was dissolved when Chief Minister Usman Buzdar resigned. Hamza Shahbaz was then elected the new chief minister in April this year after 25 PTI legislators voted for him. The Election Commission of Pakistan, in light of a Supreme Court’s verdict, then unseated PTI’s ‘turncoats’. Of those 25, five had been reserved-seats lawmakers while 20 had had been elected in general constituencies. As many as 10 of those 20 had won their seats as independent candidates and later joined the PTI. The other 10 were elected on PTI tickets. Interestingly, all the dissidents are ‘electables’. Each of them has a considerable vote bank in their constituencies. Probably believing that Imran Khan had no future in the power corridors owing to his poor performance before the success of the no-confidence motion against him and that the PML-N still remained the most popular party in the Punjab, they had supported PML-N for Hamza’s election after obtaining an assurance that the PML-N would award them tickets for future elections. The PML-N has now awarded tickets to 18 of them. However, the situation remains difficult and uncertain.

The chatter on the social media suggests that Khan and the PTI are stronger than ever. The ground reality can be different. In urban areas, PTI’s supporters are more active. They show up more regularly at protest demonstrations and rallies. However, the situation in semi-urban and rural areas is different. In urban areas, including the four Lahore constituencies and a couple of semi-urban-rural constituencies, the PTI can put up a a tough fight. However, support of the PML-N, the ruling party, may prove decisive. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has withdrawn its candidates and pledged support to the PML-N candidates. These candidates also enjoy the support of other Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) parties including the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) in rural areas of the Punjab.

In most constituencies, the PML-N has not fielded its regular ticket-holders. Some of them are visibly unhappy over the loss of face. Others, who had lost in the same constituencies in the 2018 elections, are actually glad they have not been asked by the party to run.

The PML-N has won most of the seats in the by-elections held in the Punjab between 2018 to 2021 under the PTI’s government. Out of the 29 national and provincial constituencies from the Punjab, the PML-N was successful in 14, while the PTI bagged 10 in the by-polls.

Those contesting as PTI’s candidates believe that Imran Khan’s popularity, built around his narrative of a “US conspiracy”, will see them through. However, their own electoral muscle will also be tested since the PTI has no great crowd charmers except Khan, who may find it difficult to visit each of the 20 constituencies to motivate the voters. Another factor that may work to the disadvantage of the PTI candidates is Imran Khan’s tendency to exclude others from decision-making. Several PTI bigwigs are unhappy with Khan’s habit of making decisions without consulting the parliamentary party. Many of them, who can lend useful support to the PTI candidates are inactive these days. Khan, who had stopped regular public appearances after his long march, has given a call for another protest in Islamabad on July 2. He wants to achieve two targets through it – destabilising the federal government and motivating his voters for the by-elections. He realises that if his party sweeps the by-polls in the Punjab, he can regain power in the most populous province and that this will pave the way for his victory in the next general elections.

The so-called PML-N candidates, the PTI ‘turncoats’, are relying mostly on the PML-N vote bank and their personal support bases in their constituencies. Most of them are quite sure of victory. However, the situation is not that simple. In most constituencies, the PML-N has not awarded tickets to its regular ticket-holders. Some of them are visibly unhappy over the loss of face. Some others, who had lost in the same constituencies in the 2018 elections, are actually glad they have not been asked by the party to run again. The unhappy former ticket holders fear that if the by-election candidates win, their political future will turn bleak and they will risk becoming irrelevant in their constituencies and to the party. Those who are happy think otherwise. Most of them see a blessing in disguise believing that running in such uncertain circumstances would have been a likely waste of resources and potential threat to credibility. The PML-N government, they realise, is facing strong criticism for the price-hike and load-shedding.

The by-elections will allow Imran Khan to measure his popularity but these will also prove challenging for the PML-N, which claims that nobody can defeat it in the Punjab and for the electables, who live in the euphoria that the political parties don’t really matter in their constituencies.

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

The electables’ dilemma