NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 10

Changing political situation in Pakistan

If the results of by-elections and local government elections are a barometer for the political situation and public opinion in the country, then some significant trends could be observed in the political arena of Pakistan, which need to be expounded upon as they would have strong impacts on the next national elections, whenever they are held, as well as the performance of the governments at the federal and provincial levels.

In the recently-held first phase of local government elections in 17 out of 35 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has received a drubbing at the hands of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F). On the other hand, in Punjab province in by-elections on one seat each of the National Assembly in Lahore and the Punjab Assembly in Sahiwal, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) trounced its opponents, including the ruling PTI.

It is important to note that the PTI has its coalition government in the Centre and Punjab while it has a two-thirds majority in the KP legislative assembly. Noticeably, in KP LG elections the PTI for the first time in eight years lost significant electoral support. More surprisingly, it is the JUI-F that has capitalized upon the lack of support from the people to the PTI. It was expected that stronger and relatively secular and mainstream political parties, like the Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), would fill the political vacuum created by bad governance and unprecedented price-hike during the rule of the PTI. It appears that the Afghan Taliban factor has come to play a part in the political arena of KP as has been the case in the past.

Although the PTI could not be completely trounced in KP LG elections and it got the second highest number of slots of tehsil chairmen out of 65, nevertheless this could be attributed to the incumbency factor. As the PTI has had its provincial government in KP for over 13 years, it used significant resources to win political loyalties by providing development funds, mostly misappropriated by LG candidates, to get themselves politically entrenched. Moreover, as the PTI provincial government would have all the control over financial resources to be provided to the local governments, voters keeping that in mind polled their ballot in favour of the PTI candidates. However, the political acumen was demonstrated by a section of savvy voters. Generally, the majority of people opted not to vote, considering the elections of no value. In this situation, relatively bigger parties, like the PTI, PML-N, PPP, could not win a large number of seats. A key factor in the defeat of the PTI is widespread food and energy inflation which has hit people across the country hard, particularly in a poor province, like KP.

The party for which the situation after the LG first phase elections in KP is quite hopeless is obviously the PTI. But at the same time, it must be equally dejecting for the PML-N and the PPP. The PML-N is undoubtedly the strongest political party in Punjab, the political heartland of Pakistan. This can be gauged from the winning streak of the party in by-elections in the province, including for two seats in Lahore and Sahiwal. However, the problem with the party is that it does not have any sizable vote bank in KP, apart from Hazara division, as well in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. This does not augur well for the political future of the PML-N as in order to form a strong government at the federal level it would have to win at least half of National Assembly seats from KP (60) and Sindh (65), if not from Balochistan. At the moment, it seems that the PML-N remains very much a Punjab party. Even the last time when the PML-N had its federal government (2013-2018), it did not have its government in KP and Sindh provinces while it could not win more than a handful of seats in KP, while none from Sindh and Balochistan provinces. Thus, the people in KP have rejected the anti-establishment narrative of the PML-N. The situation would have been different if the PML-N founder and three-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had not left the country on the pretext of treatment abroad. If the PML-N eyes winning the next national elections it would have to change its strategy and the leadership of the party would have to concentrate equally on other provinces, like Punjab, its political bastion.

For the PPP, the result of KP’s first phase LG election is disturbing, however, the party candidate managed to get 45,000 votes for the election of mayor of Peshawar. The winning candidate of the JUI-F got 62,000 votes, followed by around 50,000 each by the PTI and ANP candidates. Although the PPP came fourth in the all important Peshawar mayor election, getting so many votes from the city where it was trounced in the 2018 and 2013 national elections, is a good comeback. The PPP also got sizable votes in Lahore by-elections for the National Assembly and Sahiwal Punjab Assembly seat. Again, this must be heartening for the PPP leadership as in the 2013 and 2018 national polls the party had been wiped out from Punjab. One key reason due to which the PPP could not create a big vote bank in KP and Punjab provinces during the last two decades has been the extremely poor performance of the party in Sindh, where it has its third government on the trot. However, with each term financial corruption scandals involving the PPP ministers and leaders have increased. In KP province in particular and Punjab in general, people believe in delivery by the government of the day. While the first-ever PTI government in KP (2013-2018), led by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, performed above par, the people voted for the party in the 2018 elections again. This was the first time a party had won the public mandate for the second time consecutively in KP. On the other hand, the PML-N, which ruled Punjab several times, and its chief minister, Mian Shehbaz Sharif, initiated and completed many development projects, at least in Central Punjab, if not in the northern and southern parts of the province. This is despite the fact that Shehbaz, his family members and party leaders have been involved in mega corruption scandals with substantial evidence. It means that the people in Punjab tolerate corruption by the PML-N and also agree with a very strong anti-establishment narrative of the party as long as the PML-N delivers what the people believe it delivers. The PML-N, over the last three decades, has also developed a strong stranglehold over society in Punjab cultivating deep bonds with influential landlords, industrialists, traders, businesspeople and even criminal gangs. This has been a significant factor in the winning of the PML-N in the province. A similar bond has been developed by the PPP in rural Sindh.

The political and public opinion trends that have become obvious in the recently-held first phase of LG elections in KP and by-elections in Punjab would have a deep impact on the electoral results of LG polls in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Unless the PTI improves its performance in the Centre, KP and Punjab, it would be nearly all over for the party in the upcoming elections. However, the situation is not too good for the PML-N either, apart from Punjab, and for the PPP, other than in Sindh. In this scenario, religious groups, like the JUI-F, Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), would fill the vacuum.