On 17 September, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won the National Assembly -120 (NA-120) Lahore (III) by-election. The assembly seat was vacated after former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's disqualification in the Pakistan Supreme Court's Panama Papers case ruling on 28 July.
Although various political parties were in the fray, the main contest remained between Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Sharif's PML-N.
PML-N retains seat
The PML-N candidate Begum Kulsoom, the wife of Sharif, secured 61,745 votes while PTI's Yasmin Rashid bagged the second position with 47,099 votes. Contrary to the expectations, the total voter turnout remained significantly low with around 33 percent amid reports of electoral complaints at various polling booths.
Though the PTI lost by 13,268 votes, the party's overall performance in the constituency improved from the previous elections. Whereas, the PML-N's margin of victory has further decreased since the 2013 general election.
Yet, the by-election win has come at a crucial time when the party is mulling over the 2018 poll strategy amid growing leadership crisis — after Sharif's disqualification — and reports of political differences between Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz (also chief minister of Pakistan's Punjab province).
The NA-120 by-election was widely seen as a litmus test for both PML-N and PTI in the run-up to the 2018 general elections. Although the outcome may not entirely establish the tone of the upcoming election, still the 'expected' victory came as a relief for the PML-N. Moreover, the result indicates that the PTI may likely pose a tough challenge to the ruling PML-N in Pakistan's Punjab province, which is the home turf of the Sharifs. Also, the narrow victory margin may leave the ruling party electorally vulnerable in the next year's election.
Although PML-N has been winning the seat for decades, this by-election held a significant importance for the party, which framed it as a chance for the supporters to reject the apex court's verdict against the Sharifs.
The positive outcome augurs well for the PML-N since it has come at a time when court proceedings into corruption charges have started against the Sharif family members. The Supreme Court recently rejected two review petitions into the Panama Case verdict. Resultantly, it is possible that Nawaz may stay out of mainstream politics indefinitely. For him, it is already a downhill from here. In his likely absence, the PML-N is now tasked to find a competent face who can carry forward Nawaz's political legacy and win future elections for the party.
The by-election was also seen as a test for Sharif's daughter Maryam Sharif, who spearheaded the party campaign — for her mother Kulsoom, who is currently receiving medical treatment in London.
Maryam is considered as Nawaz's possible political heir. During the electioneering, she eulogised her father’s dedication and commitments for the nation and urged voters to disregard the court's disqualification verdict. This was the first time that she handled the party's election campaign almost single-handedly — Hamza Sharif, her cousin and Shahbaz Sharif's son, did not participate in the campaign — and got the desired results.
She has likely gained the party's trust after the poll results, which may allow her to play a bigger role in the 2018 elections. She is already viewed as the likely replacement of Nawaz in the future.
Long road ahead for PTI
Although PML-N's victory did not come as a surprise, the important question was, will the opposition PTI upset the Sharifs in their home turf?
Despite the defeat, PTI gave a stiff competition and narrowed the overall margin of victory. The party was anticipating a positive outcome after Nawaz's disqualification — which would have further emboldened its anti-corruption agenda before the next year's election. However, the adverse outcome in the NA-120 by-election — along with regular political desertions, misgovernance in PTI's ruling Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and contempt charges against Imran Khan — may affect the party's overall image, which, if not corrected timely, may likely impact the party's electoral prospects in the 2018 elections. Moreover, PTI made attempts to turn the by-poll into a referendum against the Sharifs, which did not really work in their favour.
Interestingly, Khan did not actively participate in electioneering this time, possibly because the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) enforced a code of conduct barring campaigning by parliamentarians. Yet, he held a public meeting and led a rally in Lahore, outside the NA-120 constituency, to garner support for Rasheed. Reportedly, both events saw a considerably low turnout, which reflected the party's limited political influence in Lahore. Nonetheless, the overall poll outcome provides the PTI few reasons to rejoice.
Right-Wing forces rise
In an unexpected development, the two Right-wing candidates Sheikh Muhammad Azhar Hussain Rizvi of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah party and Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh, an independent nominee backed by the terror outfit Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD)'s unregistered political party Milli Muslim League (MML), surpassed mainstream parties such as Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) for the third and fourth position respectively. Evidently, this may signal a plausible change in Pakistan's political set-up in the foreseeable future, wherein Right-wing forces may try to expand their influence in the country's mainstream politics.
The emergence of a JuD-backed party and the mainstream PPP's complete rout in the by-election are two new phenomena in Punjab's politics. The PPP's abysmal performance suggests that the party's attempts to re-enter Punjab may not materialise anytime in the foreseeable future.
Weak top leadership, inward-looking provincial politics and a dearth of competent local leaders are few reasons of the PPP's deplorable position in Punjab. Similarly, the situation is alarming for the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party which received a meagre 592 votes. The tally suggests that only a handful of people support the Jamaat’s politics.
Despite the political infighting and ongoing corruption cases, the PML-N still holds a considerable electoral backing in its home-turf Punjab. But, for how long would the party be able to hold its vote base in Nawaz's absence, and who would be his political successor? These are going to be some critical questions on which the party will likely brainstorm in the coming months.
After the recent outcome, the PTI and other opposition parties will soon start preparations for the next year's general elections. New political alliances may come up in the run-up to the polls. A united opposition seems like a distant possibility at the moment considering the ideological and political differences among the mainstream parties.
Clearly, the by-poll result came as a solace for the ruling PML-N after Nawaz's ouster as Pakistan's prime minister. But the PTI's strong performance and a likely emergence of the Right-wing parties may pose a serious challenge for the PML-N in Punjab, and thus nationwide in the 2018 elections. Still, it is too early to predict if the NA-120 outcome will be repeated across the country, especially in Punjab province.
Sarral Sharma is a researcher at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS)
Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 18:32 PM