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.