The July 17 by-election in Punjab, which was expected to be a close contest between the ruling party on its favourite turf and the rival PTI, turned out to be a one-sided affair with the latter clinching 15 out of 20 contested seats.
The PTI stunned most observers, thus proving several political pundits wrong in their pre-elections assessments. The startling victory makes the PTI, once again, a frontrunner to form a government in the province. The victory also injected fresh energy into the PTI party ranks and fan hub, which was dejected after Imran Khan’s ouster through the vote of no-confidence. The voting difference between the PTI and PML-N remained 8 percent (PTI 49.5 percent and PMLN 41.7 percent), exactly the same as it was during the 2018 general elections (33 percent and 25 percent).
Though the by-elections sprung surprises, there were some positive aspects as well. Let’s take account of the bright side of the by-elections.
This is probably for the first time that the masses have inflicted a deadly, seemingly irreparable, damage to the reputations of turncoats or lotas. At least 16 turncoats lost their seats at the hands of their respective electorate. The results reflect growing public disaffection with politicians changing loyalty every now and then merely for personal gains. This is, therefore, a welcome development that would ultimately help the fledgling yet nurturing democratic culture of the country. If the turncoats were unhappy with their mother party, they should have resigned in the first place and come clean to contest elections. After this humiliating defeat, defectors in future would probably think twice before changing loyalties.
The voting difference between the PTI and PML-N remained 8 percent (PTI 49.5 percent and PMLN 41.7 percent), exactly the same as it was during the 2018 general elections (33 percent and 25 percent).
The voting turnout was another welcoming development. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the overall turnout remained 49.69 percent, which is a new record for the by-elections. Previously, the average turnout for by-elections remained around 20 to 25 percent as voters mostly take by-elections for granted. Constituency-wise turnout varied, with a whooping 65 percent in Bhakkar, followed by more than 50 percent in seven constituencies and less than 50 percent in another four constituencies. Lahore’s four constituencies, however, witnessed an abysmally low turnout. The turnout indicates that people showed up in large numbers and exercised their best possible right to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their respective representatives.
The by-elections took place generally in a peaceful environment, despite 696 polling stations being declared most sensitive. Over 52,000 police constables were deployed to maintain law and order. The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an election transparency watchdog, also observed that polling day remained largely orderly. There were hardly any reports of polling delays, disruptions, or troubles. The ECP received, in total, 13 complaints, which is proportionally less than one complaint against all constituencies. All the complaints were sorted out within hours without putting polling on hold.
Another positive aspect is that there was close to no interference by the incumbent government. A few ministers, who were campaigning adhered to the ECP’s code of conduct, and stepped down from their portfolios to participate in campaigns freely. Likewise, the ECP ensured no meddling from the ruling party and usage of state machinery which has been a usual exercise in past. After receiving violation reports, the ECP issued multiple warnings before taking action.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the overall turnout remained 49.69 percent, which is a new record for the by-elections. Previously, the average turnout for by-elections remained around 20 to 25 percent as voters mostly take by-elections for granted.
Although leading up to the polls and in a post victory speech, Imran Khan blamed the ECP for showing restraint in controlling alleged pre-poll rigging and allowing the government to use state machinery on the polling day, the ECP has been hailed by the government despite it being the actual loser. This indeed, gives the ECP much needed confidence and support as an independent and empowered election commission that could set the democratic course in order for future.
Overall, the by-elections came up with many highs but fewer lows. Leading contesting parties, the PML-N and PTI, graciously accepted the mandate of each other. Elections gave both sides another chance to introspect their narratives, policies, and strategies. For the ruling side, which may likely be replaced, it is an eye-opener to gauge its popularity and a chance to readjust its strategy before going into next elections. For the incoming ones, it is a lesson that how it could circumvent taking decisions unfit for the masses.
Let’s hope that the competing parties will carve out a positive lesson and come up with innovative energy for future elections.