The Punjab by-election blues

PREDICTABLY, the outcome of the Punjab by-elections has changed the course of the country’s politics. The PTI’s triumph has cleared the way for the party to regain control of the country’s most powerful province, leaving the fate of the PML-N-led government at the centre hanging in the balance. It may have looked like the finale for the current dispensation after the loss of its bastion but the game is not over yet.

The federal government has said it will complete its term. There is also the question about whether the election of chief minister will go smoothly given the narrow difference in the number of votes between the two sides. The tension has heightened after the by-elections. With the prospect of an economic collapse staring us in the face, the ongoing political confrontation could completely destabilise the state. What lies ahead is anybody’s guess.

What happened on July 17 may have come as a shock but it was not entirely unexpected. It has certainly been a resounding poll victory for a party which was ousted from power just a few months ago in a parliamentary coup. Most astonishing is the scale of the PTI’s success. The humiliation suffered by the PML-N reflects the shifting political sands in the country’s heartland. It is the hour of reckoning for the party of the Sharifs.

While Imran Khan’s aggressive campaign and his populist politics may have helped galvanise his voters, there were several other factors that contributed to the result. The large turnout of voters, rarely seen in by-elections, demonstrates that the PTI was able bring out young voters, making the difference. While the PTI appeared better organised, the PML-N was riven by internal feuds. Predominantly a family enterprise, the party miserably failed to meet the aspirations of the young generation of voters looking for change. The incumbency factor was also to the disadvantage of the ruling party. The odds were stacked against it, with the government being blamed for high inflation. There has been a dramatic shift in the country’s political dynamics in the past three months since the change of government.

A new round of the power game has begun that is likely to be more vicious.

That also led to a change in Imran Khan’s political fortunes. The overthrow of his government before the end of its tenure made a political martyr out of him. It may not be an unusual phenomenon in Pakistani politics where it is rare for any elected leader to complete his or her term, but unlike previous ousted leaders Imran Khan fought back with a ferociousness never seen before.

Although his removal from office was through a democratic process, though seen as controversial by many, he built his own campaign on the false premise of a conspiracy theory. He blamed the overthrow of his government on a nexus between the US, rival politicians and the security establishment. His demagoguery proved extremely effective. He successfully played up the deep-rooted anti-Americanism and xenophobic nationalist sentiments to mobilise public support in his favour.

It is not his conspiracy narrative alone that has caused Khan’s mass support to swell; the anger over his ouster a year before the end of his term too helped rally the public. It has particularly widened his support base among the urban middle classes. His narrative of the return of a ‘tainted’ political leadership to power fed into the fears of the populace. Within days of the no-confidence move against him, he was out on the streets.

Being at the receiving end of the public angst against the spiralling inflation and economic slide earlier, he turned the tables on the new coalition government. The unstoppable rise in the cost of living and some of the tough but necessary actions taken by the Shehbaz Sharif government that included increasing petroleum prices also turned away voters from the ruling party.

Interestingly, the former prime minister has taken on the security establishment, accusing the army leadership of colluding with the ‘conspirators’. Ironically, it was the same leadership that had propped up Khan’s government for more than three years. Now he is presenting himself as an anti-establishment leader, notwithstanding the fact that he developed a huge following among retired officers, including many former generals.

While Khan pursued his right-wing populist agenda most aggressively with a lethal mix of religion and nationalism, his rivals did not have any alternative narrative with which to counter the PTI’s politics. With the concentration of political power within the Sharif family, it has been hard for the PML-N to motivate the people looking for change. The father and son duo occupying the top political positions at the centre and in Punjab, and the elder Sharif calling the shots from London, is hardly something that could inspire the youth and draw support from the urban educated middle classes.

True, the PML-N is still a formidable political force in the province but the latest by-elections have exposed its vulnerability. The social and economic changes that have occurred over the years have also impacted the politics of Punjab more than anywhere else. The province that comprises over half the country’s population is experiencing one of the fastest processes of urbanisation anywhere. That was also reflected in these by-elections, with the PTI gaining ground across the urban-rural divide.

With the critical by-elections over, a new round of the power game has begun that is likely to be more vicious. Instead of having a sobering effect, his victory seems to have worsened Imran Khan’s confrontational tendencies. He now wants elections on his own terms. Despite his landslide victory, he continues to accuse the Election Commission of being biased.

Surely, elections are the only way out of the political stalemate but Imran Khan’s destructive and dictatorial approach remains a major obstacle in the way of any democratic political solution. What is most alarming is the fact that the political instability has worsened the economic crisis. The country is now facing a real threat of defaulting on its foreign loan repayments. It is an extremely gloomy situation.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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