WRITING ON THE WALL
The need for new leaders and new political parties is a reality.
Despite having alleged 'massive backing' of the Khalai Makhlooq, being the ruling party at the federal and provincial levels, having support of a subservient police and administration, and of powerful sections of the media, and who also had an unflinching support of 12 large and small parties and powerful local factional leaders, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz could win only four of the twenty provincial seats in the by-elections held in Punjab on July 17, 2022. It was indeed an extremely humiliating defeat for the PML-N because Punjab is considered a citadel of the PML-N since the 1980s. The defeat becomes even more alarming when the winner - Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had contested the election on its own and at a time when every established institution of the country and the Punjab was actively working against it.
This has triggered a debate about the future of the PML-N. Some political analysts think it is the beginning of the end of the fiefdom of the Sharif’s in Punjab and Pakistan. To some the PML-N’s historic defeat is a temporary setback. However, it is also likely that suggestions will be made to the party leadership to undergo a thorough soul-searching.
Let’s consider some empirical facts before reaching a plausible conclusion. Are the results of 17th July by-elections sufficient to predict the future of the PML-N? In my opinion, it sounds a bit too much to rely just on that. However, a comparative analysis of the election results of 2018 and the by-elections could be useful. In 2018, the PML-N had contested elections on its own. It had contested elections only on 15 of the 20 seats of by-elections. It won just one seat, lost four seats to independents and 10 to PTI. This party contested all the 20 seats and lost seven to independents and one to PMLN. Both the PML-N and PTI contested the elections under a caretaker set-up.
On the other hand, as stated in the foregoing, the PML-N contested the recent by-elections at a time when it was in power and all members of the ruling coalition plus the 2018 (20) independents jointly contested the by-elections. Regarding outcome of the by-elections., as for seats, one could argue that the PML-N gained three more seats than in 2018. However, if you compare it with their combined seats, the share of the coalition plus independents has declined massively from 11 to four seats. Regarding the share in votes, in the 2018 election, their combined vote bank was 1,057,052; in the by-elections it was reduced to 883,185 – almost a 10% drop. It seems unlikely that the PDM member parties plus the affiliated independents will not contest the next general elections jointly. If this happens, the PML-N vote bank is likely to drop further.
The margin of the PML-N’s defeat has deepened since 2018. For instance, PTI’s margin of victory has increased from 8% in 2018 to 14% in 2022. Moreover, interestingly, Lahoris showed little interest in voting on 17th July, as the average turnout in the four constituencies of the city was 34.7%, while in the rest of the constituencies it was as high as 53% on an average.
Let’s now examine the causes of the PML-N’s defeat. Broadly, political analysts cited the following factors. 1. ‘Unwillingness of PMLN in using modern methods (social media) of campaigning.’ 2. Instead of fielding tested candidates, the PML-N preferred turncoats, which caused annoyance and low turnout of PML-N voters. 3. Extremely poor performance of the PML-N government and steep increase in prices of essential commodities since April.
The writer heads the Pattan Development Organisation.