In the aftermath of the NA-120 by-election, discussion of the result has been characterized by two different concerns. Firstly, many have taken the by-election as an indication of how the general elections of 2018 will unfold; for some, the PML-N’s victory has been taken as a sign of how the party remains electorally viable despite the Sharif family’s ongoing legal and political troubles, while others have pointed to the increase in the PTI’s vote share (and corresponding decline in that of the PML-N) as evidence of how Imran Khan’s relentless focus on the alleged corruption of the ruling party has finally started to shift the electoral calculus in his favour. Secondly, much has been made of the apparently better-than-expected of two extremist religious parties – the Milli Muslim League (MML, which is essentially the political wing of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa), and the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), campaigning principally on the issue of blasphemy – which managed to capture almost 11% of the vote, with this being interpreted as a worrying indication of rising levels bigotry and religious intolerance in society.

In truth, while it is understandable why many have jumped to these two sets of conclusions, it may be premature to derive such insights from the NA-120 results. To start with, it makes sense to consider precisely why the PML-N and the PTI have experienced the losses and gains that they have when it comes to their share of the vote in this constituency. The PML-N’s 48.6% share of the vote represents a decline of about 11% from the 59.7% Nawaz Sharif managed to secure from NA-120 in 2013, while the PTI’s Yasmin Rashid increased her own share from 34.1% to 37.1% of the vote meaning that in 2018, a swing of just under 12% would be sufficient to topple the PML-N in a seat that has been relatively ‘safe’ for the better part of three decades. On the surface, it seems as if this represents a significant setback for the PML-N, especially when considering how the PML-N’s share of the vote in NA-120 has been declining since 2008. Digging a little deeper, however, it becomes clear that treating this result as a predictor for 2018 is problematic. For one, even though this by-election enjoyed a relatively higher turnout than other elections of this kind at almost 40%, it is still significantly less than the turnout of 52% that was reported in 2013. This is important because these ‘missing’ voters and their political proclivities are crucial to understanding how things might turn out one year from now. For example, it could be the case that large numbers of voters who might have otherwise supported the PML-N simply chose not to vote in this by-election, but would go to the polls in 2018 when the stakes would be higher and the party itself would be contesting the election on a more frenetic footing. The opposite could also be true, in that PTI voters might not have been sufficiently mobilized for this particular election. It could also be the case that the ‘missing’ voters were proportionately split between the two parties, meaning that they would not have altered the outcome. Until more is known about who did not vote and why, it is impossible to predict whether the PML-N’s declining fortunes, and the rising ones of the PTI, will continue into 2018.

Similarly, independently of turnout, it is not at all clear why voters have chosen to reward or punish the PML-N and PTI. One common argument is that voters have responded to the allegations of corruption leveled against the Sharifs, and will continue to do so as they are dragged through the courts and the accountability process. This may be the case, but it could also be that voters are simply attempting to ascertain where the political wind is blowing. Electoral politics in Pakistan is often shaped by the perception of which parties and candidates are most likely to be able to provide patronage. What this means is that voters, as well as candidates looking for party tickets, usually try to back horses that they think are most likely to win (as opposed to on the basis of ideology and/or identity, although some voters and candidates will choose based on those criteria as well), with the assumption being that being in office is the best way to ensure access to public goods, services, and resources. As such, rather than responding to narratives about corruption, the NA-120 by-election result might simply be an indication of rising voter uncertainty regarding the PML-N’s future. Seen this way, the true test of the party’s prospects in 2018 will be the extent to which it is able to project strength despite its recent troubles; if external factors like the health of the economy remain favorable, and if the PML-N is able to prevent its candidates from jumping ship and defecting to other parties, thereby addressing voter uncertainty, it is far from obvious that the party will be punished for its alleged misdeeds in 2018.

This brings us to the question of how to interpret the performance of the MML and the TLY. At one level, it should not be surprising to find two religious parties of this kind enjoying the support of just over ten percent of the electorate. More importantly, however, given that this was the first election contested by both parties, it would not be unreasonable to assume that their workers, activists, and supporters were more enthusiastic and charged-up than their counterparts from more established, mainstream parties. As a result, it may just be the case that they are over-represented in a by-election with relatively low turnout, and that their performance relative to other parties will be worse in 2018. Similarly, the votes polled by the MML and TLY must be understood in the context of two other, related developments, namely the decline of the Jamaat-i-Islami as an electoral force and, as Tahir Mehdi recently argued in Dawn, the potential defection of right-wing, religious voters from the PML-N. Seen this way, the MML and TLY do not represent a new and dangerous tendency within the electorate. Instead, they are simply repackaged versions of a traditional, religious vote that has long been part of the electoral calculus but which has rarely been significant in terms of altering the overall balance of power or disturbing the mainstream parties. This does not mean that the emergence of the MML and TLY should not be treated with caution; they both represent extremist tendencies within Islam and their brazen entry into mainstream politics, espousing their dogmatic and parochial views on Islamic law while exploiting sensitive issues like blasphemy for electoral gain, should be exposed and opposed at every turn. Nonetheless, it would be premature to view them as serious electoral contenders in 2018.

A lot can happen between now and the next general elections, and there are simply too many unknowns and variables at play to be able to make predictions about what will happen. Suffice it to say it will be an interesting year.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.