The NA-120 by-election was not going to be easy for the PML(N) to lose. Not only had it held the seat since 1988, but it was in office in Punjab. It is still an implicit condemnation of the provincial government if it loses a by-election, even if the seat had previously been held by the opposition. It cannot be said that the PML(N) did not try, with the candidate, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif ill and absent abroad, but it still won. It is right, with a much-reduced margin, but the positive takeaway is that Mian Nawaz Sharif’s vote bank is mostly intact, even though the by-election was caused by him being unseated by the Supreme Court.
The result of the by-election shows that the electorate has not opted to agree with PTI chief Imran Khan, who tried to present the election as a contest of good versus evil. The electors of NA-120 opted to vote for the wife of the man Imran handed hounded from office, the mother of the owners of the London flats whose money trail could not be explained to the Supreme Court.
One aspect of the by-election was the reduction of the margin from the general election. That may well be a general phenomenon, especially in a constituency like NA-120, where the winner piles up huge margins during the general election. In by-elections, voters tend to stay at home and enjoy the extra holiday if they believe that their party can do well without them.
The PTI desire to claim that the election was a rigged one against it was almost palpable. At the same time, there was a desire to crow over the performance of its candidate. The rigging claim would serve three purposes. First, it would fit the PTI narrative and explain why it lost. Second, it would give it the status of a victim. Third, it would provide Dr. Yasmin Rashid an explanation to her party leader of why she failed again.
NA-120 was very much Mian Nawaz Sharif’s constituency. He had won it in the 1985 and 1988 elections when he had also won the provincial assembly seat that made up half of it and given it up to become Punjab Chief Minister. He had given it up in 1993 as well because he had retained the NA-12 Haripur II seat to which he was also elected. In the ensuing by-election in 1985, the general election loser, Syed Asad Gilani, had been elected. In the 1989 by-election, for the first time, Mian Nawaz had given the seat to someone, to Mian Azhar, then the Mayor of Lahore. In 1990, he retained the seat and became Prime Minister for the first time. In 1993, he kept the Haripur seat, giving what had by now become NA-95 to Ishaq Dar in the by-election. By repeating this in 1997, he showed that NA 95 was a ‘safe seat,’ one of the few in Punjab, and though to be won in the general election by Mian Nawaz himself, was to be vacated and given to someone else.
In the 2008 election, when Mian Nawaz himself couldn’t contest, first Javed Hashmi was elected, then Bilal Yaseen was elected in the 2010 by-election. However, Mian Nawaz not only contested the seat in 2013 but kept it to become PM. Back in 1985, he had won the seat in partyless polls, and in 1988, had faced his first party-based election. He defeated the PPP candidate by 13,000 votes. That margin increased with the passage of time. In 1990, he had defeated Air Marshal Asghar Khan, and then the PPP candidate in 1990 by large margins. In 2013, the main opposition was provided by Dr. Yasmin Rashid of the PTI, who went down by 50,000 votes.
In a way, this by-election was a replay of the 1988 general elections, for once again a person of Nawaz’s family beat one of Malik Ghulam Nabi’s kin; then his son, now his daughter-in-law. The defeat margin remained almost similar: 14,000 votes this time, 13,000 then.
What was also noticeable was the way the PPP has more or less disappeared from what was once supposed to be its Larkana in Punjab. It has not so much lost its pole position as the party to beat, but its very relevance. It is not just PTI that has beaten it into third place, but two religious parties, the Milli MuslimLeague and the Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Movement, have joined in sending it into fifth place. The religious parties have a sub-sectarian basis, for the MML is Ahle Hadith in orientation, the LYM Brelvi. The votes they garnered were probably split off from the PML(N) vote, but the win indicates that it remains the go-to party for conservatives. The PPP is significantly free of charges, familiar from the past, that the ticket was wrongly awarded, which means a grudging acceptance that it does not even appeal to party diehards. They preferred to stay away from the polling, whereas the party needed them in the forefront of the campaigning if it was to have had any hope of even making a respectable showing.
More than any other party, the PPP needs to do a rethink. Those who have any memory of party’s founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto are fewer in number, and those that still live, are more decrepit with each passing year. Dr. Yasmin Rashid’s choice of the PTI over the PPP shows the trend of the progressive voter away from the PPP espoused by her husband’s family.
The vote for religious parties may be seen as a kind of protest vote which was only cast because this was a by-election vote, and there was a huge PML(N) majority. However, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz has to appear at least once in the House to be sworn in.
Mian Nawaz’s entire family is now in the UK, and speculation is that they will not return, especially as they are awaited by the NAB references ordered against them. Just two days before the by-election, the Supreme Court decided the review petitions Mian Nawaz had filed, and thereby sealed his political fate, making it clear to even the most Pollyanna-ish that his political career was over.
But does that mean the end of his party? In the shape of the PML(N), yes. But he does represent something, and the political space left open may well be taken up by such parties as the LYM and the MML. After all, the PPP has given way to the PTI. If the PTI has military backing, so do the LYM and the MML. But then, so did Bhutto and Mian Nawaz once. Whatever shape is taken by the right post-Nawaz right, it will probably slip out of the hands of its military sponsors.
The NA-120 by-election also indicated that the right-left split in Pakistani politics is still relevant, indeed has been worsened in recent years. It has changed, however, for the old pro-USSR left is now pro-USA, while the former pro-USA right now opposes it and supports the jihadis. The by-election did not witness any expression of the hardline religious right’s views, however, because its supporters reject elections altogether. That could well be a danger-signal for the present system.
The writer is a veteran journalist and
founding member as well as executive
editor of The Nation.