PML-N’s victory in the Lodhran by-election came as a big shock to the Tehrik-e-Insaf. But it was also a bit of a surprise for the N-League itself. The by-election result – the defeat of Jahangir Tareen’s son by a big margin – proved almost all political pundits wrong who had been predicting a comfortable victory for the PTI
It may be recalled here that Jahangir Tareen had won the seat in the 2015 by-election by a margin of over 40,000 votes, but his son has lost it by 25,000 votes. This means a swing of 65,000 votes in favour of the PML-N candidate which defies all political calculations.
The seat, which fell vacant after the PTI’s Jehangir Tareen was disqualified from holding public office by the Supreme Court, should have been easily won by the party. But the PTI committed a series of mistakes of which the primary one was nominating Tareen’s son Ali to contest the seat. This was in negation of the party’s claims that tickets are awarded only on merit.
Imran Khan has always spoken strongly against the children of politicians inheriting seats and party positions. But in this case he argued that Ali Tareen was the most deserving candidate, a fallacious logic which resulted in the party losing the seat to the PML-N. In previous by-elections in Punjab, the momentum seemed to be in favour of PTI, but the tide seems to have turned. Imran Khan has tried to put a brave face on the Lodhran defeat by saying that it gives the party an opportunity to learn from its mistakes and do better in the coming national elections.
Political analysts have analyzed the Lodhran election results in detail to identify the factors that caused the upset. In their opinion, it is wrong to conclude that the victory has vindicated Nawaz Sharif’s narrative against his disqualification. According to them, the result in Lodhran cannot be declared as the voter’s verdict against his disqualification. The truth is that local factors – and not any national issues – played a big role in the final outcome of this election.
According to media experts, above everything else, it is the Kanju factor – instead of Nawaz Sharif’s victim narrative – that swung the constituency in favour of PML-N. It is relevant to add here that the Shaheed Kanju group had won all the national and provincial assembly seats from Lodhran district in the 2013 general elections, defeating both the PLM-N and the PTI. Later, the Kanju group joined the PML-N, and one of its leaders, Abdul Rehman Kanju, now serves in the federal cabinet as a state minister.
However, taking advantage of dissensions in the Kanju group, Jahangir Tareen was able to defeat Siddique Baloch, the PML-N’s candidate, in the 2015 by-election. But in the recent by-election Siddique Baloch, for personal reasons, refused to contest, paving the way for Pir Iqbal Shah’s candidature. The Kanju group, other influential figures, MPAs, local representatives and different political factions formed an alliance against Ali Tareen and fully supported Shah in the election. Another former candidate, Rafi Shah of the PML-N, also backed him. It is interesting to note here that Rafi had campaigned for Tareen in 2015 against Baloch. Lodhran is among the most backward districts of Punjab. Some major development works undertaken recently also helped the PML-N candidate.
But the PTI is no less to blame for the Lodhran debacle. It made some tactical blunders. For one thing, according to media reports, Jahangir Tareen disappeared from Lodhran soon after his win in 2015 and did little to serve the needs of his constituency during his tenure. For another, Ali Tareen, with his child-like appearance and little political experience, was a weak candidate. Lodhran was unfamiliar ground for the Tareens who had little grip on local affairs.
The main lesson that emerges from the Lodhran by-election is that the selection of candidates has become an important factor in electoral politics. No party can take voters for granted on the basis of its national standing. Pir Iqbal Shah was a weak candidate, no doubt, but his reputation as a humble and modest man helped him garner popular support.
In the larger national perspective, the Lodhran election result seems to indicate that PML-N is gradually regaining its lost electoral ground. It is notable that so far, the PML-N has held itself intact as a party and has its powerful electoral machine in full gear. This gives the party the confidence that it would win the general elections. We must not overlook the fact that the PML-N is still the dominant electoral presence in Punjab and faces no immediate threat to its supremacy from any quarter.
There is a growing body of opinion in the country that the PTI’s anti-Nawaz rhetoric and corruption mantra are not having the desired political impact any more. At least that is what is proved by the three by-elections PML-N has won since the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The question is: Has PTI learned its lesson? The political pundits’ advice is that while continuing to focus on Nawaz Sharif’s corruption, the PTI should also campaign around the real issues facing the masses. No doubt, the PTI has, in general, increased its vote bank in Punjab, but it needs to work harder if it wants to dislodge the PML-N from its perch. The PTI also needs to learn the ropes of electoral politics – micro management at the constituency level without which no elections can be won.