FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 9

PTI loses the bat but is still in the game

The biggest event of last week was the Supreme Court’s decision setting aside the Peshawar High Court (PHC) order that reinstated “bat” as the party’s electoral symbol for the upcoming general elections. A three-member bench — comprising the CJP, Justice Muhammad Ali Mazhar and Justice Musarrat Hilali — heard the ECP’s petition challenging the PHC decision to restore the PTI’s election symbol.

Announcing the verdict, the CJP recapitulated the main points and timeline of the case. He said that the ECP had been calling upon the PTI to hold its intra-party elections since May 24, 2021. On December 22, the ECP decided against letting PTI retain its electoral symbol for the general elections, saying that it had failed to hold intra-party polls as per its prevailing constitution and election laws. Subsequently, the PTI approached the PHC against the ECP order, and a single-member bench restored the party’s electoral symbol until Jan 9, directing that the case be fixed before a divisional bench.

In the short order, the PHC had termed the ECP order as “illegal, without any lawful authority and of no legal effect”. According to the court, the PTI was entitled to the election symbol “strictly in terms of sections 215 and 217, read with any other enabling provision of the Elections Act 2017 and Election Rules 2017”. Subsequently, the ECP challenged the PHC’s decision to restore the PTI’s election symbol.

Without doubt, the apex court has dealt a devastating blow to the PTI’s plan and expectation to sweep the coming elections. Political analysts and many legal luminaries have described the ruling as excessive, infringing the fundamental right of voters to vote for a party of their choice. There is a large section of opinion in the country which holds that the verdict would disenfranchise “tens of millions of voters across Pakistan”. Some commentators have described the verdict as “not just a defeat for the PTI but a defeat for democratic norms in Pakistan”. According to the director of the Atlantic Council’s Pakistan Initiative, “there are no winners here. The only loser is Pakistan and its democracy.” Another line of argument is that the case involved not just the rights of a political party but the rights of millions of voters who have now been effectively stripped of exercising their choice in favour of a political party. Michael Kugelman, an analyst and scholar on South Asian affairs, called the development “brazen, not subtle, pre-polls rigging”.

The Supreme Court’s verdict stripping the PTI of its familiar election symbol has radically transformed the political landscape of Pakistan. The PTI’s ticket holders are in a state of confusion as they will be contesting elections not under the iconic bat symbol but a bewildering variety of symbols which ordinary voters may not recognize easily.

In the given circumstances, what are the electoral prospects of the PTI? The party structure is in total disarray and scores of electables have joined other parties, such as the PTI-Parliamentarians group of Pervaiz Khattak and Jehangir Tareen’s Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party. In view of the developments and the establishment’s harsh attitude towards the PTI since the May 9 incident, the likelihood of the party returning to power in the next elections seems remote.

What about the PML-N? Nawaz Sharif is a great survivor. After every dismissal he has somehow managed to bounce back to power. He has become adept in the art of political deal making, a skill which he is using now to seek partnership with smaller parties in other provinces and building coalition with breakaway PTI groups. But he has nothing new and tangible to sell in the 2024 elections, especially after his brother Shehbaz Sharif’s disappointing record of governance as prime minister of the PDM coalition in 2022-2023. The PML-N’s dynastic style of politicking is also a big disadvantage, particularly in these days of social media explosion instantly making available the tiniest bit of information to voters holding mobile phones in the farthest corner of the country. Dynastic politics does not appeal to the new generation of voters. Further, the party lags behind in the narrative war.

The Asif Zardari-led Pakistan Peoples Party is strong in Sindh but holds a weak position in Punjab where the main contenders are the PML-N and the PTI. Zardari has launched Bilawal Bhutto as the contender for the prime minister’s slot but there are many hurdles in the way. In his public rallies Bilawal has tried to build his narrative around the classic PPP theme of “roti, kapra, aur, makan” which has worn thin due to overuse and lack of delivery in the past. The PPP leadership is playing hard to recover some of its lost glory in Punjab, but the odds are stacked heavily against it.

A major challenge for PPP in Sindh is from the nationalists who have joined hands with the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) led by the Pir of Pagara, while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is up for grabs by anyone offering it a share in power. Various voter assessments indicate that in the coming elections, no party may win a simple majority with the result that a coalition or multi-party government will be formed.