FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 35

Imran’s crushing yorker

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf became the first opposition party in the country to sweep by-polls. The victory is not only shocking for observers but also for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which leads a coalition government in the Centre and was also in the government in Punjab when the elections were held. Imran Khan’s landslide victory becomes even more prominent when seen in the context that almost all political and religious parties of the country were contesting against his party and all state institutions were supporting the PML-N and working to ensure that Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz retained his office.

There was no doubt about it that Hamza Shehbaz’s election as Punjab chief minister was illegal, if seen in the context of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the defection case. According to noted lawyer and PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan, Hamza Shehbaz cannot even be called a former chief minister under the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, still an all-out effort was made to make and retain him as chief minister by all state institutions of the country. It is a fact that the PTI has not only defeated the PML-N, but all state institutions, including the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), judiciary, bureaucracy and police, which were hell-bent to retain Hamza Shehbaz at any cost.

It was also a victory of Imran Khan’s narrative that he had been voted out through a US-backed conspiracy. It also removed the stigma from him and his party that he had been “selected” to win in the 2018 elections. He achieved another milestone in the crushing win that has buried the politics of “electables,” who become a part of every government by changing their loyalties ahead of every election. Imran Khan has also broken the myth of Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan as the “kingmaker” of his party. He once again proved that he can build a narrative and work for its success. Besides his narrative, rising prices were another major reason behind the PML-N’s defeat in its stronghold. PML-N voters were unhappy with it for fielding “turncoats” and ignoring party workers who had contested the last election against them.

The PTI routed the PML-N by winning 15 seats in by-elections for 20 seats, which were vacated after the disqualification of PTI members who had voted for Hamza Shehbaz for Punjab chief minister’s office. The PTI won five seats in Central Punjab, five in North Punjab and as many in South Punjab. The party lost only one seat in Lahore, three in South Punjab and one in North Punjab in the by-polls held in 14 districts of the province. The PML-N could win only four seats, as it had fielded “turncoats” in all constituencies, except for Lahore, where PTI renegade Aleem Khan had decided against contesting the election. It was really shocking for the PML-N to lose three out of the four seats to the PTI in Lahore, its power base for decades. Many federal and provincial ministers had resigned to take part in the election campaign.

After the elections, Imran Khan thanked party workers and voters of Punjab for defeating, not just “the PML-N candidates but also the entire state machinery, especially harassment by police and a totally biased Election Commission of Pakistan.” He once again called for holding fresh elections. “The only way forward from here is to hold fair and free elections under a credible ECP. Any other path will only lead to greater political uncertainty and further economic chaos,” he tweeted.

As the PML-N had no excuse, it accepted its defeat. PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz tweeted that her party should accept the results with an “open heart” and bow before the people’s decision. “Winning and losing is a part of politics. The party should identify its weaknesses and work hard to remove them,” she added. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that his party had paid the price for “difficult decisions” taken by the coalition government to improve the economy.

However, the PTI’s victory and resignations by some party dissidents not only posed a serious threat to the Hamza Shehbaz government in Punjab, but also a potential challenge to the Shehbaz Sharif’s government in the Centre. The run-off election for the chief minister’s office will be held on July 22, as ordered by the Supreme Court.

Undoubtedly, it is a great victory for Imran Khan, who has emerged as the most popular leader of the country. His party won despite massive pre-poll rigging and support of all national institutions to the PML-N. The election results also show that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has become irrelevant to politics in the biggest province, where it was formed and thrived until a decade ago, when Asif Zardari “merged” it with the PML-N. As a result, PPP voters switched sides and now they support the PTI.

The PTI won despite rigging and opposition by state institutions because people came out to vote in a large number. It curtailed the chances of manipulation. The party also had planned to stop polling day rigging by training its activists. Its trained polling agents did not leave much space for rigging. The limited number of seats also helped the party better focus on them. Its selection of candidates was better than that of the last general election. However, general elections will be a different ball game. The PML-N is still a formidable force and it has all possible tools to win the next election in Punjab, though it has little support outside its forte.

On the other hand, Imran Khan has become more powerful to dictate his terms. He can dissolve the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies to pave the way for his demand for fresh elections. However, he is unlikely to dissolve them because the current situation suits him.

However, the by-polls defeat has left the PML-N in trouble; if it goes for early elections it will lose and if it completes its term, it would lose more badly.