Will PML-N and PTI take pages from TLP’s book to gain votes for the 2018 general election?

Source:  Tribune Published in Current Affairs on Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Recently, the results of the by-election in PP-20 Chakwal were declared, giving the embattled Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) a comfortable victory. This particular by-election was important for the following three parties: PML-N, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP).

For PML-N, ever since Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification through Supreme Court’s (SC) landmark decision, a question which has constantly been discussed in the media is their political future. According to some, PML-N is in dire state after the disqualification and is facing harsh subsequent events which include Faizabad sit-in and former prime minister’s continuous confrontation with higher judiciary and establishment.

At the same time, some believe that despite problems, Nawaz is still popular and PML-N’s vote bank is still intact. Going into election 2018 (assuming these are held on time or held at all), it became imperative to gauge its electoral prowess and this by-election provided a useful means to do that.

Likewise, popularity of the main opposition party, PTI, which spearheaded the campaign against Nawaz, also needed to be assessed. On electronic and social media, the party definitely has a massive footprint and furthermore there is absolutely no doubt that today, PTI has more street power than any other political party, matching Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the latter’s heydays. Whether these obvious advantages translate into electoral majority in Pakistan, particularly Punjab, this by-election was an important way to gauge.

In addition, everyone was also interested in gauging the prospects of new right-wing party TLP, particularly after the recently concluded Faizabad sit-in. It has been claimed that the party would make a dent into PML-N’s vote bank in 2018 general election, thus benefiting PTI.

So how did the three parties fare in the by-election?

For PML-N, given the fact that it has been facing problems for some time now, this was a do or die situation. Moreover, this was the seat they have been winning for decades, barring the 2002 election. Local dynamics were apparently in their favour, which actually made it even more important for them to win. They had to win this seat and by a very comfortable margin to prove that they were not only intact as a party but also had a fighting chance in the upcoming general election. A loss in a “safe” seat would have spelled disaster for them and would have probably led to mass scale defections from their own MPs. Moreover, a defeat would have severely discouraged their supporters and also changed the decision-making calculus of the rational voter – one who votes after taking into account the winning prospects of a party – to a substantial margin.

Given that scenario, PML-N has done well as it not only retained its seat but actually increased its vote tally and that too in a by-election. In 2013 elections, it got a little over 62,000 votes, but in this election, it has managed to secure more than 75,000 votes. Given that politics is often local, this does not mean that PML-N is going to have a landslide victory in the upcoming election. However, it does show that it’s still well-entrenched in its own constituencies and if the local factors don’t change, the party is not going to witness a total annihilation. It has a fighting chance, unless something drastic happens before the elections. The disqualification of Nawaz apparently has not dented PML-N’s vote bank, at least in their rural and semi-urban strongholds like PP-20 Chakwal. It proves that where local factors favour them, they have a good chance.

For PTI, stakes were high though not as high as for PML-N. This was an election; they were expected to lose, though a win would have proven extremely beneficial for them. It was also an opportunity for them to know the extent of political capital they have gained due to their “victory” at the SC.

Although PTI has lost the election by a large margin, at the same time, compared to 2013, they have also increased their vote tally, which is a good sign for the party. The defeat by a large margin may also be partially due to local factors but the increase in number of votes shows that the party is catching up.  It has now completely displaced PPP as the second major force in the Punjab province and shows that the future holds promising for them.

However, they need to work better at the local level and moreover expand their message beyond corruption of their rival politicians. This is because the impact of SC’s decision is perhaps there, but not to the extent that the party was hoping. Of course, for majority of the urban middle class supporters of PTI, corruption of Nawaz is the biggest and perhaps the only issue in Pakistan, but the reality is different outside their bubble. When masses vote, their considerations are often not always aligned with “educated” urbanites and that is why PTI has to talk about other issues also, instead of continuously repeating the same things regarding corruption of Nawaz.

The most frightening development in the last few months has been the rise of TLP. First time it contested the election in NA 120, it actually got more votes than PPP and Jamat-i-Islami (JI) combined. Although the party had no chance of winning this seat, all political pundits were interested in knowing how many votes it would gain in this election and whether it would actually dent PML-N’s vote bank.

The party has gotten more than 16,000 votes which for a nascent and frankly a fringe right-wing religious party is quite high. This is a dangerous development showing that religious extremism is selling and unfortunately, slowly becoming mainstream in the country.

This result, however, does not prove that TLP has dented PML-N’s vote bank, at least in this constituency. Nevertheless, this may not prove to be the case in other constituencies as PML-N has traditionally been the major recipient of the Barelvi votes in the past. That is why I fear that both PTI and PML-N might be tempted to use similar tactics in order to gain votes or at least prevent loss in their existing vote bank in the upcoming general election. In fact, PTI’s Jahangir Khan Tareen has already started to court certain Barelvi hardline scholars as evident from his following tweet:

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Met Pir Hameed ud Din Sialvi sb, to relay Khan sb's message & to pledge complete support for his demand of Rana Sanaullah's resignation. Khatme Nabuwat is one of the most important segments of our Iman & PTI will stand against every conspiracy designed 2 impede Khatme Nabuwat law

I fear that PML-N would respond in a similar manner and this “battle” would escalate with each side progressively doing more. The situation does not look good to me and I hope that both the mainstream parties learn something from history. Electoral gains are not worth the destruction of society’s social and moral fabric.

raza.habib

Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)