Results of the October 14 by-elections were shocking for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government as the opposition bagged two National Assembly seats vacated by Prime Minister Imran Khan and also closed the gap in the Punjab Assembly. Besides internal rifts, the major reason behind the defeat of government candidates was soaring prices of essentials and hikes in electricity and gas rates.
The PTI was whitewashed in Lahore as the rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) comfortably won all four seats. The drubbing in Lahore was expected because the ruling party faced the wrath of the people after a massive cleanup operation was launched in Lahore, in which thousands of acres of state land was reclaimed and encroachments were removed from all markets. It displaced thousands of families and vendors. A court order on the strict enforcement of helmet use by motorcyclists also annoyed the people. Over 9,000 motorcyclists a day were ticketed by the traffic police for not wearing helmets on Lahore’s roads in the first few days of the drive. The government had to enforce the court order ahead of by-elections, which drew the ire of the people and they vented their anger through votes. The PML-N also created an impression in the public that it would at least win back the Punjab from the PTI after the elections. Water rationing in Lahore also contributed to the PTI defeat.
The PTI and the PML-N got four each out of 11 National Assembly seats. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), an ally of the government, managed to retain two seats in Chakwal and Gujrat, whereas the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) improved its strength in the National Assembly by winning the Bannu seat. The seat in the PTI’s stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was clinched by MMA’s Zahid Akram Durrani, son of former Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani. In the July elections, the PTI chief had defeated Akram Durrani, who fielded his son, Zahid Durrani, in Bannu. He defeated PTI’s Nasim Ali Shah by a margin of over 19,000 votes. The PML-N not only retained its two National Assembly seats, but also managed to snatch two seats from the PTI after a tough contest in Lahore (NA-131) and Attock (NA-56).
Another important feature of the by-elections was the participation of overseas Pakistanis for the first time in the country’s history. Out of 7,364 registered overseas votes, 6,233 polled their votes through i-voting. The low number of registered overseas votes has dispelled fears that they might play an important role in elections.
A major setback to the PTI came in Lahore’s NA-131, a seat vacated by Prime Minister Imran Khan, where PML-N candidate Khawaja Saad Rafique won against PTI candidate Humayun Akhtar by a margin of around 10,000 votes. On all four seats of Lahore, NA-124, NA-131, PP-164 and PP-165, the PML-N proved its ballot strength was intact despite a low turnout as compared to the July 25 general elections. In NA-124, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi won by a margin of over 45,000 votes against PTI’s Ghulam Mohayuddin Diwan. Abbasi secured around 75,000 votes whereas Diwan took around 30,000 votes. On two provincial seats of rural Lahore, PP-164 and PP-165, PML-N candidates Sohail Shaukat Butt and Saiful Malook Khokhar won by a fair margin.
The by poll results in the Punjab have set alarm bells for the ruling coalition and the PML-Q has gained even more significance. A revolt in the ranks of the Punjab coalition could threaten the government of Chief Minister Usman Buzdar in case a no confidence vote is sought and the survival of his government now lies purely on the PML-Q, the party with only 10 seats in the House of 371. The PTI had strength of 176 MPAs in the Punjab Assembly before the by-polls and it could only add three more seats from PP-201, Sahiwal, PP-261, Rahimyar Khan and PP-272, Dera Ghazi Khan whereas it lost others to the PML-N or independents including those which it won in the July 25 general elections, including PP-3, PP-27, PP-222 and PP-292.
The PML-N, which had 162 MPAs in the House before the by-elections, won six more seats and if one seat of Khawaja Saad Rafique, who will now take oath as an MNA, is excluded, the strength of the party stands at 167. The party is likely to win the vacant seat of Lahore in a month. In this way, the party with 168 votes and additional support of the PPP with seven MPAs can reach a figure of 175. In case the PML-N wins the support of independent MPAs, its strength can reach 178, which means it just needs the support of eight more MPAs to overtake the PTI government. Former Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, who has been elected as an independent candidate but not taken oath, can also support the PML-N.
Wrong choices for candidates and internal rifts also cost seats to the PTI in the Punjab. It lost in NA-56, PP-3, PP-27, NA-131, PP-222 and PP-292, which it had won in the general elections. The PTI believes the main reason for its failure to achieve a clear majority in the by-elections was the absence of the senior party leaders, including Imran Khan, from the campaign. The top party leadership failed to run the campaign due to a bar by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on them. The PTI’s politics revolves around Imran Khan and when he was not in the field, division in the party ranks was natural.
Another reason for the loss was that the PTI looked uninterested in by-polls as it failed to adopt tactics adopted by governments in the past – promises of jobs and development schemes. It had also calculated that any result would not affect its majority in the Centre and the Punjab. Its assessment proved right in the end. Despite it, it is a great achievement of the PML-N as government candidates are almost impossible to defeat in by-polls in Pakistan and it can take credit for it.