The September 17 election on the National Assembly (NA) 120 (Lahore) seat and its outcome not only revealed the political mood of people in one of the most important political constituencies of Pakistan, but would also have a profound bearing on the next national elections. According to the results, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate, Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of disqualified prime minister of the party, Nawaz Sharif, won the assembly seat. However, Kulsoom’s, who was a candidate in absentia, victory was not at all impressive. In fact, there was an 11 percent decrease in the PML-N vote in comparison to the elections of the May 2013 national election, in the above said constituency. On the other hand, the main rival of the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan has improved its percentage of the polled votes by 3 percent. The total turnout in NA 120 remained 39 percent, which is satisfactory for any by-election. Nevertheless, the way political parties were campaigning for the seat it was expected that the voter turnout would be far more, at least 50 percent. Had the turnout been more the PML-N would have seen further decrease in its percentage of polled votes.
The election in NA 120 was extremely important, as it was the seat which fell vacant after the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) for not being “truthful” and “honest” under Article 62 and Article 63 of the constitution of Pakistan pertaining to the moral criteria of a public representative. The petition against Nawaz Sharif and his family was filed by the PTI in the SCP after the unearthing of the Panama corruption scandal by the International Consortium of Journalists (ICJ), revealing Sharif and his family owned off-shore companies bought through laundered money. In this context the election on the NA 120 seat was being projected as a contest in which people would either give their favourable or unfavourable verdict on the SCP decision of disqualifying Sharif. The way in which the percentage of the votes of the party has fallen, reveals that people in the constituency, by and large, supported the SCP disqualification of Sharif. It is also important to note that 51 percent of the vote polled in NA 120 went against the PML-N.
On the other hand it is also very important that the PTI, which got 52,000 votes in 2013, in NA 120, got more than 47000 votes in 2017. Thus, the party has, more-or-less, kept intact its vote bank or, rather, has improved its percentage of votes, because the turnout in the May 2013 elections on the NA 120 was 52 percent whereas the turnout on September 17, 2017, on the same NA seat remained 39 percent. In this context the PTI has improved its prospects of winning the elections in the next general polls.
The PML-N win in NA 120 by getting 30,000 votes less than what it got in 2013 suggests that the party would find it extremely difficult to win the seat in the next national elections. Because the PML-N and its governments at the centre and the Punjab used fair and unfair means to win the elections by offering appointments in government departments to a large number of constituents, giving costly gifts to innumerable persons, using members of local mafias, nurtured for decades by the PML-N, and the local police and administration to force people to vote for the ruling party and stopping supporters of the PTI from casting their votes. So despite the use of all these resources and tactics, if the PML-N has won the election but lost the percentage of votes as well as the total tally of votes as compared to its previous electoral performance, then the victory of the party is meaningless. So in the next elections when the PML-N would not have its government to oversee the elections, it would be extremely difficult for the party to win. More importantly, NA 120 is the ancestral electoral constituency of the Sharif family and if the family and its party the PML-N finds it difficult to win the seat in their heyday and government, the party may not win an impressive number of seats in the rest of the constituencies in the country, even in the Punjab province, which has been the bastion of the PML-N for three decades.
In this situation the net political advantage from the outcome of the NA 120 election has gone to the PTI, which not only won the legal battle against Sharif in the SCP but also posed a very stiff political challenge to the PML-N in the field. This political advantage which the PTI has gained in NA 120 would impact quite strongly in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the PTI has its government, in the next general elections.
In NA 120, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) received a historical drubbing. The PPP, which in the past won the seat thrice, could only get 2,000 votes. So bad was the performance of the PPP that the election surety amount of its candidate was confiscated. This yet again shows that the PPP is no more a national level party but is confined to Sindh. All the efforts by its head and former President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, including presenting his son Bilawal Bhutto, as the new and young face of the party failed. So in the next elections, the PPP will not be a force to reckon with in the Punjab. This would mean a straightforward contest between the PML-N and the PTI in the province with the latter entering with a clear edge. And whichever party would win more seats in the Punjab would be in a position to form the next federal government. With the PTI having a solid vote bank in KP province the situation would be more favourable for it to form the next federal government as well as governments in the Punjab and KP.
In Sindh neither the PML-N nor the PTI has any strong following and either party would be able only to dent the vote bank of the PPP.
A very interesting aspect of the NA 120 election was the ignominious showing by the Jammat-e-Islami, which got only 500 or so votes. The JI has always been getting more than 10, 000 votes in constituencies of Lahore and has even won some in the 2002 national elections. But the September 17 result has been a nightmare for the party. This shows that the demagogic antics of JI head Siraj-ul-Haq have fallen flat. The JI is the coalition partner of the PTI in the KP government, but has been refusing to support the latter in elections elsewhere in Pakistan. In KP, the JI has gained considerably from its uneasy alliance with the PTI, but nationwide its strategy has failed. The PTI will gain from that situation, because most of the silent voters with a favourable bent towards the PTI, have been critical of the party’s alliance with the JI.
A very important outcome of the NA 120 elections has been the impressive showing by two sectarian parties. The one belonging to the Shiite sect got more than 7,000 votes while the Milli Muslim League, the political face of Jamaat-ud-Dawa of internationally blacklisted Hafiz Saeed, got more than 4,000 votes. This means that whichever mainstream party would be able to woo these sectarian parties to its side would strengthen its position. Another very important dimension of the performance by the totally new sectarian parties in NA 120 is that the sectarian vote has not gone to either mainstream party. Traditionally, the Sunni sectarian groups have been voting for the PML-N, considering it as an ideological affiliate. This also means that the sectarian vote and the liberal votes could now be separated. The PML-N which has been an ultraconservative party due to its familial and clannish orientation would be extremely disturbed due to the loss of Sunni sectarian votes.
So the NA 120 elections has given us very interesting results which would be strongly reflected in the next national elections which are less than an year ahead.