By-elections could land early killer blow on Khan’s rule
Less than 10 weeks after the national elections, Pakistan on Sunday went to the polls again for 11 National Assembly seats and 26 seats across all four provincial assemblies. Necessitated mostly by seats vacated by candidates who contested and won more than one seat in the July 25 polls, it is a veritable mini-election that has more than an academic bearing. Because the results of the previous elections generated a serious controversy, which continues to persist, and had a bearing on how the federal and provincial governments were formed, the results of these by-elections are also seen as an opportunity to settle claims of whether the winning party in the national election deserved its mandate or whether allegations of electoral engineering were justified.
The July general elections brought a new party to power: Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). This is only the fourth party to have won any of the country’s 11 elections for federal parliament. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), currently led by Bilawal Bhutto and helmed in the past by his mother Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has won five times — in 1970, 1977, 1988, 1993 and 2008. The Pakistan Muslim League-N currently headed by Shahbaz Sharif but led until earlier this year by Nawaz Sharif, won in 1990, 1997 and 2013. The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, birthed by renegades from PML-N under former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, won in the 2002 elections. One election — held in 1985 by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq — was party-less.
At the heart of the overall by-election battle, as is often the case in Pakistani elections, is the Punjab province, where nine seats are up for grabs for the National Assembly and 11 for its regional assembly. This is the electoral heartland that is the traditional home base for Sharif’s PML-N and where Khan’s PTI turned the electoral tide enough in the July elections to form the federal government as well as the provincial government. Because these parties are the only ones with a realistic chance of winning seats this time, the contest is seen as one that could deliver a killer blow to the electoral legitimacy of Khan’s prime ministership.
The ruling PTI sees the by-elections as a way of settling the lingering dispute over its legitimacy and popularity. It has had bad press during its brief governance period so far, including controversies over its choice of ministers in the federal and provincial cabinets, and offices of the provincial chief ministers and governors, and its struggle to inspire confidence in its ability to quickly formulate and announce policies, none of which have been forthcoming despite the strong support for its extensive reform agenda. Twice Khan has had to step in to counter impressions of a drift in governance and promise action soon.
Winning a majority of seats in the by-election would be seen as a vote of renewed confidence in PTI and would reinforce its mandate for deep political, social and economic reforms.
The results of the July elections created ripple effects on the electoral landscape of Pakistan that refuse to fade away, thereby lending significance to Sunday’s electoral battle. For instance, the results took three long days to compile, compared to the more traditional 24 hours. This was because a supposedly magical electronic “Results Transmission System” (RTS), which had promised voting transparency and efficiency, delivered the opposite because it collapsed within three hours of the end of voting and generated allegations of rigging that supposedly changed results in favor of PTI candidates. The RTS system is surprisingly being used again and is expected to determine if its July fiasco was a technical glitch or foul play. PTI will benefit in terms of legitimacy if RTS does well.
The elections are also critical for PTI because the results of July’s general elections brought a decisive victory only in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, where it won a simple majority and became eligible to form a government without any other party. However, at the federal and Punjab levels, it fell way short of simple majorities and had to resort to the controversial and unpalatable method of enlisting winning independent candidates to join its ranks in lieu of ministries and plum offices. It also had to rope in other smaller parties that it fiercely fought against and which are known for their arm-twisting for the same political bribes of key ministries.
To form the federal government and to elect Khan as prime minister, PTI needed 137 seats in the National Assembly, but won only 116. It had to make up the difference by politically “buying” a dozen independents (non-party candidates who can join any party after winning elections) and enter an uneasy alliance with three smaller parties. Likewise, in the Punjab Assembly, it needed 149 seats to form a government but won only 129. It subsequently enticed 25 of the 28 independents with ministries and enlisted the support of smaller parties. The result is that, for every PTI minister in the ruling cabinets, there are two non-party ministers. The cabinets are hence not seen as being run by the PTI and are perceived to be compromising its agenda of reforms.
Winning a majority of seats in the by-election would thus be seen as a vote of renewed confidence in PTI and would reinforce its mandate for deep political, social and economic reforms. It would also majorly help to reduce Khan’s uneasy dependency on pesky other parties to remain PM and for his party to be in power in Punjab. But, if opposition parties, especially the PML-N, win even a third to half of the seats on offer, the results will come as a severe blow to the legitimacy of the PTI government and compromise Khan’s efforts to remain as prime minister for his full five-year term.
• Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1