The recent by-elections raised some interesting queries. The purpose of a by-election is supposed to be merely the filling of a seat, and in Pakistan this is supposed to be under the authority of the Chief Election Commissioner (in the UK, by-elections are held under writs of the Speaker of the Commons, while general elections under royal writs; some similar arrangement is in place in all British ex-colonies; and in Pakistan, general elections are conducted under the authority of the government, by the Chief Election Commissioner again, while by-elections are conducted by him in his discretion. In Pakistan, because politicians choose to contest more than one seat, and especially in the case of prominent leaders, then go on to win, because they are only allowed to retain one seat, there have to be by-elections to an unexpectedly large number of seats. The vote is often taken as a referendum on the performance thus far of the central government, but it is a truism virtually unchallenged that by-elections are won by the party in power in the province. This series of by-elections proved no exception. By-elections thus do not provide any kind of barometer to the popularity of the government of the day, because they are mainly a test of whether or not the government in office duly has its hands on the reins of power. If the government is defeated, it is because the party which has given up the seat has failed to retain it. The by-election results thus matter most to the candidate most likely to be elected, in other words, the government candidate. In the present coalition situation, the 'government candidate' means the candidate supported by the provincial government, in this year's case, the PML-N in the Punjab, and the PPP in the other three provinces. Though many of the by-elections were to national seats, none were considered in any way referenda on the coalition at the centre, or rather even on the PPP government there. Nor were any of the by-elections referenda on any of the provincial governments, even though that would seem more logical. They were not even votes for individuals, either because they had national leaders campaigning, or because local strongmen were now in the run. Also, none of the governments formed after the February 18 elections, four provincial and the central, was even remotely under threat as a result of the by-elections. Such a situation has never prevailed in Pakistan, but it has happened in the UK in the 1970s that a government has been under threat of being brought down by a by-election. At that time, Labour had formed a minority government which survived with Liberal and Irish support. Because the by-elections were referenda, the loss of a Labour seat not only shook the government, but threatened to bring the government down because it lacked the numbers. Since 1988, though Pakistan has had by-elections to fill vacated seats, it has never faced a situation where a government, even a provincial, has been posed even a theoretical threat by the by-elections. At most, there has been, as in 1997, some possibility that the by-elections would put the government beyond the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. The 2008 by-elections did answer some specific questions. First, they answered the question of whether Asif Zardari wanted to become PM, or whether he thought it suitable to let Yousuf Raza Gilani continue with the job. For Zardari to become PM, it was necessary for him to find a seat in the National Assembly. Well, he did not use the by-elections to enter the National Assembly, even though a court verdict made it impossible to keep out non-graduates like Zardari from the assemblies. Meanwhile, Mian Shehbaz Sharif was elected unopposed to the Punjab Assembly from Bhakkar in order to become Punjab Chief Minister, but his election from a Rawalpindi seat meant that there will be at least a by-election in Rawalpindi. At the moment, the government is in the Supreme Court to prove Mian Nawaz Sharif eligible for the Lahore by-election, which the government had postponed to let Mian Nawaz contest, provided the Supreme Court lets him too. In fact, Mian Nawaz's disqualification by a returning officer on the same grounds as had led to his disqualification in the general election, provoked a severe public reaction, including a traders' strike. True, it had other causes, but the Nawaz disqualification was the trigger. The issue was not so much Nawaz's disqualification, which had been an issue in the general elections, as the possibility that Shahbaz would be disqualified from membership of the Punjab Assembly, and thus disqualified from the Punjab chief ministry, which he held. The protests might have caused an upheaval in the political classes, and caused the federal government to take up the case before the Supreme Court, for the government does not have the same objection as the Sharifs to having its cases heard by judges who took oath under Musharraf's November 3 PCO, but the public was not diverted into an enthusiasm for the by-elections, where the voter turnout remained much below what it had been in the general election, where it was at the low level that had been observed since 1997, an election for which Musharraf had not been responsible.  Since turnout is directly related to how much effort the parties make to turn out the vote, and how much transport the candidates make available to the voters, with candidates about as ready as in the general elections, the difference between by-polls and general elections has to be the parties. Can it be concluded that parties cannot fight by-polls? They probably cannot, and if ever a party learns how to, it will give the party running the provincial government the scare of its life. However, that will be some time happening, because all the parties have got 'by-election experts', who claim that their party cannot win without them, and who provide reasons for the losses that occur. They will provide reasons for the losses that occur, in which of course they personally were ignored. E-mail: maniazi@nation.com.pk