Parliament watch: After the by-elections, PML-N and PTI prepare for bigger battle

Source: Published in Politics on Friday, October 16, 2015

Voters are done with the by-elections held in Punjab last week, but the leaderships of the PML-N and the PTI are busy analysing the tactics that won or lost them seats in the fierce contest to prepare for the bigger battle – the forthcoming local government elections.

While the by-elections in NA-122 and PP-147 Lahore and NA-144 Okara were about prestige; the local government elections involve political power at the grassroots level.

By reclaiming his NA-122 seat, former National Assembly speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq restored his prestige, and more so of his party, the PML-N. But the party lost the Punjab Assembly seat of PP-147 to the bitter rival PTI. Both parties won by thin margins but claimed moral victory.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was reportedly furious at the party workers for the thin margin and the loss in Lahore, the heart of the bastion of power in Pakistan. Many commentators said the noisy, spirited fight that the PTI put up, under the stewardship of Imran Khan, foretold its rise in the looming local government elections.

For the realists, though, the victory of industrialist Riazul Haq in Okara represented the most meaningful upset in the by-elections, which the media had projected as a do-or-die contest between the ruling PML-N and the ambitious PTI.

His deep pockets didn’t matter so much in the contest as his understanding of the politics in rural backlands, say the realists.

Dawn spoke to a variety of political minders, who understand and watch politics in Punjab, about the chances of PML-N and PTI in the crucial local government elections.

A veteran journalist, who has been reporting both regional and national politics for decades, thinks the PTI doesn’t stand a chance against the well-heeled and well-entrenched PML-N, especially in rural areas of Punjab. “No doubt the PTI will give the PML-N candidates a run for their money in urban centres,” he said. “But contests in semi-urban and rural areas involve more than money - the influence that incumbent MPAs and MNAs wield.”

And that, he was sure, will be on full display in the local government elections. “Alas, the PML-N continues with its time-tested modus operandi: excessive use of the thana-patwari culture for political gains,” he said, wondering at the PTI’s chances “in a scenario created by and for the powerful.”

Poor, innocent villagers are made to realise what would get them the development funds needed to improve their lives.

“How can they dare vote for anyone other than their sitting MNA or MPA?” he argued.

A senior PPP leader agreed with the argument. “May be in a few districts, like Gujrat where the Chaudhry cousins Shujaat Hussain and Parvez Elahi have a cult following, opposition candidates win the local council contest. Otherwise, the PML-N will rule the roost,” he declared.

“Will a party as vindictive as the PML-N allow opposition parties to run a district government? Impossible,” he said, citing the recent elections to the cantonment boards in Punjab in testimony.

When asked for his opinion, a former federal minister of the Pervez Musharraf regime, recalled that the regime discriminated against the district governments where anti-military regime elements had come to power in the allocation of development funds.

A senior office-bearer of the PTI said the party leadership was aware of all these opinions but still accepted the challenge they pose.

“In the cities we will field candidates at all levels but in the rural areas we are facing difficulty in that respect,” he admitted candidly. “PML-N ticket is the first choice of rural aspirants who have their own vote banks for obvious reasons.”

At the best, the local government elections provide the PTI the opportunity to field and test those who have joined it after quitting their old parties in the coming battle. The future looks to the party leaders “a half-filled glass” – not too bad if not bright.

For just taking on the Tiger of the PML-N, right in its lair of Punjab, counts for the party. “We take it as a great achievement,” said the PTI office-bearer.

Going by the trends, the PPP is heading towards a darker period. Only some magic or odd happening can bring it into spotlight again in Punjab. In last week’s by elections, the party candidates polled votes just in hundreds - a sad commentary on the fall of a party which once mesmerised the masses and ruled the province and the country under its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Today, the PPP finds its present steward, Asif Ali Zardari, reluctant to learn any lessons from the past mistakes and hoping against the hope that the party will stage a comeback as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The best option for the PPP at the moment is that Mr Zardari takes a backseat and let Bilawal and Asifa Bhutto (his children) steer the PPP. Otherwise, we are doomed,” said a PPP leader and former federal minister.

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Written by Khawar Ghumman

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