The verdict is out. Almost a dozen parties and the Pakistani establishment ended July 17 with a bloody nose, simply checkmated by one man’s determination and voters’ decision. The by-election results in the battleground central Punjab province, the erstwhile power base of the establishment-backed Pakistan Muslim League of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, left the establishment-installed coalition reeling and on the verge of collapse.
PTI ended a night of high drama and tension by winning at least 15 seats, off the 20 up for grab. Sharif’s PML-N won only 4 seats, with one going to an independent candidate. PML-N pulled victory in a Rawalpindi constituency just by 49 votes. PTI is expected to request a recount. So it may be too early to call the results final.
As the results trickled in, dark clouds started gathering in Islamabad where Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, on the advice of his absconding brother Nawaz Sharif, convened a meeting of his party to review the stunning defeat.
Imran Khan, the former prime minister, and celebrity cricket star called the central executive committee of his party to chart out the next lie of action. Similarly Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party who is also the country’s Foreign Minister, called an “emergency” meeting of his party to review the new political chessboard which is consequential for every political party that is being accused of stabbing Pakistan’s fledgling democracy at the behest of the establishment, Bhutto’s PPP included.
The voters’ rebuke has left the establishment-nurtured so-called allies of Shahbaz government and traditional turncoats, like Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Balochistan Awami Party in a dilemma. Will they jump the boat yet again, is to be seen.
In a series of tweets, Khan called his party’s electoral performance a victory not just against PML-N, but the entire state machinery, especially harassment by police and a totally biased reelection commission. Khan said the only way out for the country to get out of the political morass is through fresh, transparent, and fair elections under a “credible” election commission. Khan has repeatedly condemned the country’s election commission of being biased and compromised.
I want to first thank our PTI workers & voters of Punjab for defeating not just PMLN candidates but the entire state machinery, esp harassment by police, & a totally biased ECP. Thank you to all our Allies, PMLQ, MWM & Sunni Ittehad Council. pic.twitter.com/TgFqQ7EDj0
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) July 17, 2022
The fiercely contested by-elections were not an ordinary political drama. It created bitterness, and an explosive situation that could have very much gone south. But the intense public pressure that the PTI’s aggressive campaign generated brought the performance of state institutions, often accused of political engineering, under a microscope. Khan’s PTI, which was fearing election rigging, had made unprecedented preparations for the ballot, deputing senior party leaders to be in each of the 20 constituencies.
According to Radio Pakistan, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) established 3,131 polling stations in the constituencies. Of these, 676 were declared “highly sensitive” while 1,194 were declared “sensitive”. Polling largely remained peaceful with sporadic reports of violence in some places.
Despite the high-octane drama, the by-elections created some unprecedented and welcome examples as well. Unlike the traditional reaction of Pakistani politicians of rejecting election results, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, vice president of PML-N, showed grace and accepted her party’s historic drubbing in the elections. Maryam along with many of her party men besides a few leaders of PPP accepted the results even before the last vote was counted.
مسلم لیگ ن کو کھلے دل سے نتائج تسلیم کرنا چاہییں۔ عوام کے فیصلے کے سامنے سر جھکانا چاہیے۔ سیاست میں ہار جیت ہوتی رہتی ہے۔ دل بڑا کرنا چاہیے۔ جہاں جہاں کمزوریاں ہیں، ان کی نشاندہی کر کے انھیں دور کرنے کے لیے محنت کرنی چاہیے۔ انشاءاللّہ خیر ہو گی۔
— Maryam Nawaz Sharif (@MaryamNSharif) July 17, 2022
Another good precedent in Pakistan’s divisive and poisonous politics was set by two young politicians in Multan where PML-N’s candidate for PP-217 Salman Naeem not just accepted his defeat at the hands of PTI’s Makhdoom Zain Hussain Qureshi, but also personally congratulated his rival. Zain is the son of PTI’s vice chairman and former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The election on this seat was closely watched because Naeem had won the 2018 elections from the same constituency on a PTI ticket but later defected to bring down Khan’s government in Punjab.
ملتان پی پی 217 کا میدان پی ٹی آئی نے مار لیا۔
— PTI Candidate PP217 (@TeamZHQ) July 17, 2022
WHAT NEXT FOR PAKISTAN
Now that the election stunner is in, the most frequently asked question remains the consequences of the changed parliamentary calculus in Punjab. The first casualty of this change will be the government of Mian Hamza Sharif, whose government in Punjab has lost its majority. Punjab Assembly is to elect a new chief minister on July 22nd under the orders of the Supreme Court.
Chaudhary Pervez Elahi of Pakistan Mulsim League Quaid-e-Azam is certain to replace Hamza Sharif. Pervez is PTI’s candidate for the CM slot. He needs 186 votes to become the chief executive of Pakistan’s largest province. After the final results came in, it is clear that PTI has won at least 15 seats against 13 that it needed to vote out the young Sharif.
After losing Punjab, options for the coalition government of Shabaz Sharif are shrinking. It may have to announce general elections before the year-end, a key demand of Khan’s PTI. It is yet to be seen if Khan will force the Sharif government by dissolving the assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, where his party has and will have governments. There is a chance Sharif may not wait for the PTI’s move and dissolve assemblies on his own. But he will need the approval of his key ally and former president Asif Ali Zardari whose party has a government in Sindh province.
Also, Chaudharies of Gujrat will again take the central stage in Pakistani politics as their divided family also supports the Sharifs and maintains close contacts with Zardari. Will these political players prevail upon Pervez Elahi is yet to be seen? Changing loyalties is the easiest thing to happen in Pakistani politics. So nothing can be assumed with certainty at this stage. However, there is no denying the fact that the new political realities have brought the Sharif government into a difficult situation.
“Pakistan’s government could well be feeling some buyer’s remorse. It had a strategy for how to take power, but not for what to do once it was in power. Now it’s stuck with a free-falling economy, it lacks a public mandate, and it confronts a galvanized opposition,” observed Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center in a tweet. Kugelman called election results a “resolute victory” for Khan’s party.
Big victory for Imran Khan’s opposition PTI, as it appears to have resoundingly won the by-elections in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and biggest electoral prize. The poll was a referendum on both the new gov’t’s performance and on Khan’s narrative about his ouster.
— Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman) July 17, 2022
The dramatic change on Pakistan’s political and parliamentary map is coming at a time when the country’s economy has tanked and has joined the club of a handful of countries that are facing a possible default. If the changes bring more stability it will certainly help the economy. But if the ruling political elite and the establishment play dirty again, the country risks not just further economic meltdown but also the slippery slope of chaos.
And lastly, it may impact the reported preparations for giving army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa an extension in service. Bajwa is due to retire in November this year. If Bajwa agrees to accept an extension, it will make the role of the military more negative and controversial which many in the brass will not like to see. Khan has been accusing “neutrals” of political engineering, an indirect reference to Bajwa and his lieutenants.
“Given the controversy, Bajwa has landed in, the best course for him is not to accept an extension in service, even if it is offered,” says Shahid Hameed, a New York-based Pakistani American and a known Khan supporter. “It will be good for him to save his grace and spare Pakistan from more political instability,” he added.
Pakistani community in North America has a large following of the PTI and the by-election was closely followed on different community platforms and forums. “Punjab has neutralized the neutrals-backed candidates,” added Shahid who still believes that election results do not confirm a change in the policy of the establishment.