Kulsoom Nawaz’s victory in the by-election for the National Assembly seat number 120 should not surprise supporters or opponents of the House of Sharifs. The constituency comprising old parts of Lahore, including Anarkali, Temple Road, Laxmi Chowk, Nisbat Road, Sant Nagar, Krishan Nagar, Beadon and Hall Roads, is a stronghold of the thrice-elected and thrice-ousted former premier, Nawaz Sharif, from where he or his nominees have remained undefeated since 1985.
For the Sharifs, NA-120 is akin to what Larkana is for the Bhuttos or Azizabad for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Nawaz Sharif has won the National Assembly election from here five times, while his nominees – who now also include his ailing wife Kulsoom – thrice.
Therefore, according to all the predictions and expectations, Kulsoom should have won the September 17 by-poll from here hands down, especially when the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Sharif family had been aggressively playing the “victim card” and using government resources and machinery to boost her election campaign.
The Election Commission of Pakistan, by design or by default, emerged more as a powerless and biased caricature of a regulator rather than acting as an independent institution. The ruling party openly defied the election campaign rules and the government went the extra mile to oblige voters by the power of money and by launching last-minute development schemes on which execution was seen continuing even on the polling day. The Election Commission just watched all this as a silent spectator. The manipulation through the administration and the sad story of more than 29,000 unverified votes were also aimed at ensuring a comfortable and a big win for Kulsoom. The ruling party’s direct and indirect onslaught against the judiciary, the armed forces and political rivals, using the state and select private media houses, were meant to mobilise the pro-Nawaz Sharif vote bank to the maximum in his home constituency to achieve the goal of a gigantic victory.
And last, but not least, to ensure an astounding electoral performance, Nawaz Sharif pushed his daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz, into the ring, exposing her for the first time to the politics of narrow streets, lanes and alleys. However, the by-election did not prove to be a cake-walk for Maryam Nawaz and her entourage of ministers. They had to work overtime and at a substantial cost to the national exchequer to ensure that Kulsoom sailed through to the finish line.
Despite conventional wisdom that dictates a sitting government easily wins by-elections in countries like Pakistan, and the strong historical trend favouring the Sharifs in this constituency, the victory was a pyrrhic one. When the vote count was completed, the PML-N saw its margin of victory slashed compared to the 2013 general election when Nawaz Sharif won this seat with a margin of more than 40,000 votes against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) Dr. Yasmeen Rashid, who even then had emerged as the first candidate to secure 50,000 plus votes against him.
When the vote count was completed, the PML-N saw its margin of victory slashed compared to the 2013 general election
Come the 2017 by-election, Dr. Rashid again gave the Sharifs a run for their money, as she stood against all the wealth and might of Sharifs and their federal and provincial governments. And in doing this, the margin of victory for the Sharifs in this constituency was reduced by 14,646 votes as Kulsoom clinched 61,745 votes against Dr. Rashid’s 47,099 votes. The vote count shows that the PTI gained 3.0 percent in terms of the number of votes secured in a turnout of less than 40 percent, while the PML-N saw its vote bank eroding by a hefty 11 percent.
Besides the numbers game, this by-election had a huge symbolic value, which showed that the Sharifs have now become vulnerable in their own fortress. The PTI has managed to carve out a space for itself by denting the support base of the Sharifs.
Where will the politics of the Sharifs and the PTI go from here? Will the PTI be able to build upon its strong performance in the by-polls and further capitalise on its new-found momentum in a key constituency and, for that matter, in Lahore? And, most importantly what will Sharif and the ruling party learn from these results and what strategy will they adopt going forward? These are all important questions.
The PTI has managed to carve out a space for itself by denting the support base of the Sharifs.
As far as the PTI is concerned, it has a solid candidate and a reliable face in the form of Dr. Rashid, who belongs to that now almost-extinct category of political workers and politicians, who give an aura of being a peoples’ person. Contrary to the majority of contemporary and conventional politicians, she emerged as a down-to-earth, humble and connected with the people candidate, much like the lady you can count on in your family or community. Yet she is strong, confident and courageous enough to take on one of the wealthiest and strongest political families in Pakistan, which sets her a league apart even within the ranks of the PTI.
Dr. Rashid now has her own political weight and clout in national politics, which has all the potential to defeat the Sharifs in their home constituency if the PTI manages to create its electoral wave in the next elections.
PTI chief Imran Khan, though a relentless and tenacious campaigner, must focus on developing a trained and organised cadre of political workers if he wants to transform his personal popularity and the solid anti-Nawaz Sharif wave into electoral gains. This is where the PTI remains weak, though it is now a more experienced party compared to what it was in 2013.
Another weakness, which the PTI must overcome, is its inability – or rather aversion – to developing broad or constituency-based alliances and fronts to counter and defeat the ruling party. In NA-120, the PTI did manage to get the support of a few political parties, but it should have sought a consensus opposition candidate.
The problems for the Sharif family are much bigger and its future more uncertain compared to its political rivals. While the saner element within the PML-N is advising the elder Sharif, his daughter, and a few of their hard-line cheerleaders, to avoid the path of confrontation and try to get out of the quicksand of corruption cases legally, he is bent upon acting to the contrary (See Sharif’s Reckless Choices page 11).
The disgraced prime minister seems to believe that defiance, a show of bravado and an assault on institutions will rescue him from his current predicament and help him win back the lost political space. But he and his advisors are wrong. The voting trend, as evident in his home constituency, the national mood and Pakistan’s current challenges – all point to the fact that the key factor responsible for the continued political instability and uncertainty in the country must be brought to an end as early as possible. But for now, Sharif and his daughter are holding on to the hope of political salvation.