NA 122 By-Election: Roaring lions, lurking tigers and a broken arrow

According to unofficial results, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s (PMLN) Ayaz Sadiq has bagged NA 122 with 74,525 votes, beating Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf’s (PTI) Aleem Khan who got 72,082 votes. This is PMLN’s victory, and no post-election cries of foul play can take that away from the ruling party. Having said that, the result also ought to ring alarm bells for PMLN for having faced such a tough fight in its stronghold.

In extremely adverse circumstances, PMLN’s Ayaz Sadiq won this seat in 2002 with a margin of 18,893 votes, beating Imran Khan. In 2008, Ayaz Sadiq beat Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) candidate with a margin of 54,543 votes. In  2013, Ayaz Sadiq again beat Imran Khan by 8,872 votes. And now, in 2015 by-election, this margin has been reduced to less than 2500 votes. So yes, this is a wake-up call for PMLN. PTI has challenged PMLN in Lahore; the latter’s fortress.

The margin clearly shows that the election could have gone either way, but it didn’t, it went PMLN’s way. Even though PTI is calling this a moral victory, this is more of a moral victory for PMLN. Why? because NA 122 by-election result corroborates the Judicial Commission’s report and PMLN’s stance on allegations of rigging. There were irregularities, but there is no evidence, and little probability of a planned conspiracy to rig the GE 2013.

PTI and its chairman have repeatedly asserted that PMLN won the 2013 elections in general, and NA 122 in particular, through rigging. He alleged that thousands of votes cast in NA 122 were fake and bogus, at times the number of alleged fake votes went up to 53000. However, 11th October’s by-election was held mostly in accordance with PTI’s demands and under Army’s supervision, hence no serious allegations of rigging surfaced throughout polling hours. PMLN did not bag as many votes as it did in GE 2013, but neither did PTI, and Ayaz Sadiq won the seat. If in GE 2013, Mr. Ayaz Sadiq won this seat with the help of 30, 40 or 50 thousand fake votes, why aren’t these votes missing from his vote count now?  11th October’s election has dealt a fatal blow to PTI’s allegations of rigging, and the party may find it difficult to stand by its previous stance.

PTI should still be encouraged by the results. It bagged the provincial assembly seat and only lost the national assembly seat after a very close fight. I don’t see this as an electoral loss for PTI, maybe just a moral one, that too owing to the obsessively unreasonable and assumptive allegations that consumed two important years of PTI’s own time, allegations that continue to lose credibility. PTI should thus quit the cries of foul play, they may not be so readily believed this time around. Instead Imran Khan and PTI should now focus on eliminating the possibility of irregularities in future elections, work with the Parliament for electoral reforms and bring about necessary progressive improvements within the party. Allegations of rigging may be believed by PTI supporters, but they are already with Khan, if it wants to add to its vote bank, PTI needs to appeal to the masses, including those who aren’t already supporting them. They need to realize that at the moment, they are falling slightly short of the required numbers, not in their jalsas but in their votes.

PMLN also needs to learn its lessons from this election. The margin is squeezing, and if left ignored, it may create problems for the party in future. PMLN needs to start working in its stronghold and other parts of the country. PTI is a strong contender, stronger than PMLN’s past contenders. PMLN needs to begin its election campaign early, as early as right now. Being in government means being exposed, each and every weakness, every shortcoming will be exploited by the opposition. PMLN doesn’t have a friendly opposition anymore. PPP is nowhere, PTI is the real opposition and they will cash in on any and every opportunity to undermine PMLN. A casual approach today will spell disaster tomorrow. At the moment PMLN has an edge; NA 122 just vindicated the party but it is pertinent to know that this will not last till the next elections, and may only last till the next mistake. All in all NA 122 has just given PMLN a breather, showed them that they are ahead, and also how hard they need to work in order to stay ahead.

11th October, 2015 also witnessed the demise of PPP in Lahore and Punjab. From 23000 votes in 2008, to 3000 votes in 2013 to less than a thousand votes in 2015, PPP has descended into the darkest depths of irrelevance and insignificance in Punjab’s political landscape.

The day of Judgment in NA 122

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11th October, 2015 holds one of the most anticipated and crucial contests in a by-election, in recent past. It is not Aleem Khan versus Ayaz Sadiq, but Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI) versus Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN). Political observers and analysts are seeing this as a decisive battle between two fierce rivals. The by-election in NA 122 is, for almost all practical purposes, a question of political survival for both PTI and PMLN. The election is being seen by both parties as an opportunity for vindication of their stance regarding the fairness of general elections 2013 (GE 2013).

PTI Chairman himself contested and lost to Ayaz Sadiq of PMLN from this constituency in GE 2013. Allegations of large scale rigging followed with a demand for inquiry into these allegations in four sample constituencies, including NA 122. A battle ensued, protests and sit-ins followed and eventually a Judicial Commission (JC) was formed to inquire into the allegations of rigging.

The JC gave its verdict in a detailed report, whereby allegations of rigging remained unproven, however large scale irregularities were pointed out. Despite its unobjectionable proceedings and a comprehensive report, the JC failed in bringing about any change in either camp’s perception regarding GE 2013. Both those who asserted that the elections were rigged , and those who believed the elections were fair, continued to believe so even after the JC’s report.

Then came decisions of the election tribunals in NA 154 Lodhran and NA 122 Lahore, calling for re-elections in both these constituencies. As a result PTI felt partially vindicated, even though the tribunals too did not point towards any conspiracy or organized rigging but only irregularities mainly attributable to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). NA 154 Lodhran’s by-elections was stayed by the Supreme Court, and NA 122 Lahore’s by-election is scheduled for 11th of October.

Typically a by-election differs from a general election in several aspects. Most significant of these aspects is the fact that a by-election’s result does not promise any change in the country’s political setup, so an opposition party does not have any hopes of forming government or coming to power by way of a by-election. This should normally result in a lack of fervor and vigor on part of a contesting party’s workers, voters and supporters.

Secondly a by-election is, under usual circumstances, contested with a focus on constituency politics and not national policies or politics. This makes a voter prone to make his decision with more consideration for what a candidate or his party has done for the area, and less for their overall manifesto or ideology.

Under the current circumstances, however, NA 122 by-election looks and feels more like a general election than a by-election. The fervor and vigor are very much present, and the election is a contest between PTI’s and PMLN’s ideology more than what they have done or promise to do for the residents of NA 122.

As evident, both parties have opted for a campaign that revolves around allegations. PTI chairman, in his political congregations and press conferences, levels allegations against the PMLN leadership with minimal focus on its candidate. PMLN representatives then come up with an immediate follow-up retort where they present allegations against the PTI leadership with minimal attention to its candidate.

PTI chairman has managed to create a perception, among his followers at least, that PMLN and everyone who chooses to join or support it, is pure evil. In turn PMLN attempts to counter that perception by painting PTI as a party of irresponsible liars. The resulting rivalry has far by passed any political rivalry in Pakistan’s history. The kind and quantity of hate visible on the streets and social media websites, among supporters of these two parties is alarming and a cause of concern. In close proximity, PTI and PMLN supporters are a ticking time bomb.

This brings me to my main concern for the 11th of October. Any face off between supporters of PTI and PMLN is avoidable, and usually avoided, by law enforcement agencies during rallies and electioneering. On day of the election, however, the two are bound to be in close proximity in and around polling stations. Add to that a leadership induced paranoia among its supporters that any person belonging to PMLN is probably there to rig the election, and you have a recipe for violent encounters. Certain PMLN leaders have also resorted to campaigning by allegations and maligning opponents in an apparent attempt to fight fire with fire. This mutual attitude has unnecessarily charged the environment and now presents a threat to life and security of their own supporters.

PTI leadership has also convinced their supporters that the ECP is in on a conspiracy to rig the by-election. A polling agent, a voter or a supporter who is not familiar with election laws will have his own understanding of what constitutes rigging and he or she will object to and stop, by any means necessary, any act that he or she perceives as rigging. This will put polling staff under severe undue pressure since they have been accused of something they haven’t yet done, and may have no intention of doing.

Lastly, both parties have, to an extent, discredited the ECP. PTI claims that ECP is definitely going to try and rig the by-election while some PMLN leaders have accused ECP of working under PTI’s pressure. So it is highly probable that any result of 11th October’s by-election will not be readily accepted and will not be seen as a true reflection of the people’s mandate by the losing candidate or party. This will in turn render the entire exercise futile and non-productive, much like the JC’s report.