Arguably, no by-election has attracted as much interest as the one that took place in Lahore on Sunday.
Among the dramatis personae were: The wife of a disqualified prime minister, currently recuperating at a London hospital; a daughter of the soil backed by an aging cricketer and a religious firebrand contesting elections on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), one of the world’s most dreaded terrorist groups.
Despite being preceded by the publicity blitz of a road show by Nawaz Sharif, Begum Kulsoom, contesting in absentia, won, but by a far smaller margin than ever before.
It is also clear that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by the fiery Imran Khan, increased its vote bank substantially, taking a bite out of the vote bank of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
In 2013, when the 'Panama Papers' scam had not permeated into the public mind and the taint of corruption had not yet stuck, the PTI cut the gap on the PML-N by 17 percent, losing by 40,000 votes. This time, they further reduced the gap to 14,000 votes.
PTI chose its candidate well. Dr Yasmin Rashid was not just well-known and had a clean image, but also funded various projects that sought to improve the health of women in rural areas. Women formed a major chunk of her voter base.
Although Rashid was not born in Lahore, she grew up in the NA-120 area, attended school and college there and presented the image of a hardworking person well-acquainted with her constituency. That certainly can't be said of any of the Sharifs.
Meanwhile, PML-N leaders are making various excuses to explain their less-than-stellar performance. While it is possible that their workers were indeed kidnapped and harassed, that doesn't account for poor voter turnout. A party's political health can be determined by how many voters it persuades to pull the lever in its favour.
The PML-N's ground operation seems to be spluttering. The party is either complacent or suffering from low morale. Leadership must take complete responsibility. Not many within the party are happy that Nawaz refused to choose his brother Shehbaz as a prime ministerial candidate. For the rank and file, it is the local honcho who is boss, not far away Islamabad.
However, there seems to be evidence that the powers that be have carefully laid out a plan to split Nawaz's vote bank. In the previous elections, the Sharifs had no compunctions veering right and wooing the worst of the worst: Those interested in spawning sectarian conflicts and those who were vociferously anti-India. Several religious candidates were propped up against the Sharifs' this time, which severely and effectively eroded their platform.
Firstly, it is unusual to have 44 candidates vying for a Parliamentary seat. And that too, in a constituency that has traditionally been a Sharif fiefdom. Second, as the ever-reliable Dawn newspaper reports, 11 percent of votes went to candidates of the two religious parties that contested the election, which were political neophytes.
An example: No one seems to know anything about Azhar Husain Rizvi, who contested for the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah. Rizvi nabbed six percent of the vote. This Barelvi group is headed up by Allama Khadim Hussian Rizvi, a violent right-wing personality who has called for death for blasphemers and was an outspoken supporter of Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Pakistani governor Salman Taseer in 2011.
Remember, Qadri was Taseer's bodyguard. After the assassination, Qadri claimed it was his "religious duty" to kill the minister, who was a strident critic of Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws and supporter of liberal reforms.
Rizvi's Ahl al-Hadith counterpart Yaqoob Sheikh, though fighting as an Independent, was backed by the Milli Muslim League, which is a front for the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba. Given that this marks the debut of a terrorist group into Pakistani politics, the numbers are dismaying.
Not only did the party garner five percent of the vote, it also doubled the tally of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), represented by Faisal Mir. The Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, which has traditionally been a fighter on the Punjab political scene, managed only a little over a hundred votes. A conclusion can thus be drawn: This is not the case of religion driving a preference for a candidate. This is a right-wing vote bank being divvied up by selecting 'the right' candidates.
The importance of Lahore to Pakistani politics cannot be understated. As the saying goes: If you win Lahore, you win Punjab. If you win Punjab, you win Pakistan. While this is not entirely true, it is emblematic of the sentiment that elections in Lahore is capable of arousing in the minds of the public. Moreover, Lahore elections are often a weather vane: They help observers determine which way the political winds are blowing.
While it might be chancy to rely on a single by-election to analyse the political future of a nation, its results can be instructive. At least in the broader sense.
For one, the PPP has been unable to turn the Sharifs' misfortune to their advantage. Bilawal is a poor substitute for the wily Zardari. The latter may yet stage a comeback, given that the last of the cases against him have been dismissed. Second, Imran Khan’s persistent insurrections against corruption are beginning to pay off. Khan is also sympathetic to the right — critics have oft labelled him an 'apologist for terrorists' and derided him as 'Taliban Khan' — and he could well emerge as the consensus candidate.
If Nawaz wants to regain lost ground, he must engage in some rather nimble footwork. The smartest thing the establishment did was make public the nine volumes compiled by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). They make for fascinating and rather sickening reading, considering the fact that the majority in Pakistan are as poor as the proverbial church mouse.
Pakistan will, to a great extent — and India slightly less so — be carefully examining the Milli Muslim League's declaration that it will contest the 2018 general election. With the Jamaat-ud-Dawa closely guarding its flank and several religious entities — the 44-group Difa-e-Pakistan Council immediately springs to mind — at the ready to espouse its cause, the Milli Muslim League seems like a formidable foe.
However, as it probably cannot win on its own, murmurs have already begun that the Muttahida Majlis–e–Amal — a political alliance consisting of six ultra-conservative, Islamist, religious, and far-right parties that came together to fight the 2002 election — will be reconstituted. This group was dominated by the savvy Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, who supported the Afghan insurgency and is an entirely political creature.
But a new religious coalition will be completely different. Just as the Muttahida Majlis–e–Amal emerged in the aftermath of the 11 September, 2001 attacks and subsequent pressure on Pakistan, the new group will be arranged in a way to safeguard the interest of the establishment. Time and again, the powers that be have used the threat of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the "wrong hands" — religious fanatics and extremists — to frighten the West into submission. They've had great success with this strategy and will continue to implement it.
Pakistan can best be summed up by that old saying from Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Published Date: Sep 20, 2017 11:45 am | Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 04:41 pm