To Islamabad via Lahore

The July 17 by-elections will be an indicator of whether the incumbents at the Centre and in the Punjab can sail through the rough political currents or not

To Islamabad via Lahore


he Punjab, home ground for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for several decades, appears to have turned slippery for the party and challenging for the father-son duo leading the federal and the provincial governments. The Sharifs may have taken over constitutionally but the process has lacked a clear public mandate.

The situation has become more precarious in the Punjab following a Lahore High Court ruling requiring the Election Commission of Pakistan to notify five Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) nominees as elected against reserved seats for women and minorities. The ruling party is seen struggling but it has to win at least 16 out of 20 provincial assembly seats in the by-elections due on July 17. These seats became vacant following the de-seating of the incumbents by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The Supreme Court verdict on the presidential reference on Article 63 has also made the chief minister’s election suspect.

Hamza Shahbaz had been elected chief minister of the province with the help of 25 PTI members. The ECP has deseated the members and called by-elections to the 20 general seats. It had decided that the reserve seat ‘election’ will follow the by-elections. However, the Lahore High Court has since ordered the ECP to notify five PTI nominees as members elected against reserved seats without waiting for the outcome of the by-elections. The provincial government is considering filing an appeal against the LHC verdict. The outcome of the by-elections will thus determine the course of Pakistan’s politics.

The fall of its government in the most populace province could also bring down the government at the Centre. Recent speeches of MNAs Aslam Bhootani and Khalid Magsi from Balochistan have already eroded the credibility of the set up.

The ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s narrative has found resonance with a considerably large segment of the population. The popular support for his party has the potential to bring down the governments at the Centre and in the Punjab.

The 20 seats became vacant after the PTI members were deseated for voting against party line. They had already secured the promise of, among other things, a PML-N ticket each. The results of these by-elections will also determine the value of the promised ticket with the general elections round the corner.

The grant of PML-N tickets to PTI defectors appears to have also caused rifts within the party. The PML-N candidates who had lost elections to the PTI defectors might not support their cause wholeheartedly. Some them might even consider leaving the party over the perceived snub.

Interestingly, the PTI appears to have played it safe by again relying on the so-called ‘electables’ and not experimenting.

The high inflation and unprecedented spike in fuel and energy prices have helped the PTI up the ante and to claim to be the only political party that “cares for the people.” This is indicative of the potency of Imran Khan’s populist politics – from unconventional resistance to the no-confidence motion, questioning the impartiality of the establishment, en mass resignations from the National Assembly, use of social media to spread his narrative and resort to street agitation. The party’s support base may have been eroded a little when he was in power but it appears to be on the mend.

The fate of the federal government is linked to the outcome of the by-elections in the Punjab. Despite the odds – distasteful comments from allies and difficult and unpopular decisions relating to price hike ahead of the general elections, often termed as political suicide for political parties – many in the PML-N are convinced that they will hold on to power till the next general elections. To win 16 out of 20 seats in the upcoming by-elections is an uphill task. Only time will tell.

The writer has been a journalist for over three decades working for various newspapers, TV channels and digital media organisations, including The News

To Islamabad via Lahore