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October 19, 2018

Lessons from the by-polls


October 19, 2018

The by-polls held on October 14 were not about making or breaking the government, wreaking havoc in political parties, and changing the overall composition of seats in the respective assemblies. They were merely about political prestige and honour.

And yet, these elections held political significance as they provided an opportunity for different political parties to show their electoral domination and power in different constituencies.

It is believed that voters tend to elect a ruling-party candidate in the by-polls to ensure development work takes place in their constituencies. But when voters decide to elect an opposition candidate in the by-polls, it send a clear political message: while development work and other considerations are important, political choice is even more important. This is exactly why voters elected candidates of their choice during the October 14 polls.

Four observations can be made about by-polls. First, the turnout is usually lower as compared to general elections. This is because independent or non-affiliated voters normally don’t bother to vote in these elections and it is mainly the supporters of political parties who cast their ballots.

Second, by-polls show the real strength of a political party in a particular constituency and expose its the organisational weaknesses. Third, the ruling party usually tends to win the most seats that help it further strengthen its position in parliament and provincial assemblies. Fourth, the ruling party traditionally uses all possible means to win a maximum number of seats.

The first two things did happen in the October 14 by-polls. But the PTI failed to make major gains and lost nine seats that it had won during the general elections of July 25.

More often than not, very few seats change hands in the by-polls. But October 14 polls are an exception to this trend. The credit goes to the PTI government for not using development work and the state machinery to influence elections. The government has set a good precedent in this regard.

The PTI also suffered losses at the hands of the PML-N in the by-polls held on 35 provincial and national assembly seats. It lost two seats vacated by PM Imran Khan in Lahore and Bannu to the PML-N and the MMA, respectively. Prime Minister Imran Khan had won both seats by a narrow margin against his opponents in the July 25 elections. But it appears that the PTI candidates failed to defend their seats. The ruling party also lost three national assembly and seven provincial assembly seats that it had clinched on July 25.

The PTI’s major setback came in NA-131 (Lahore) where PML-N candidate Khawaja Saad Rafique defeated PTI’s Humayun Akhtar Khan. Although Imran Khan had won this seat by a narrow margin of 680 votes in the July 25 elections, Saad Rafique clinched this seat with a margin of nearly 10,000 votes. Former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Sardar Awais Laghari also won their respective seats.

The PML-N is the major beneficiary of the PTI’s electoral upset. While the results of the by-polls might not impact the party’s overall position in the national and provincial assemblies in a drastic manner, the PTI will become more dependent on its allies to maintain its majority.

During Election 2018, the PML-N lost to the PTI in northern Punjab, winning just one provincial assembly seat from this region. Through the by-polls, the PML-N has proved that it is still a force to reckon with in Punjab. The party regained some of its lost ground in Attock and Jhelum and reclaimed its dominance over the provincial metropolis by winning all the four seats from Lahore.

The by-polls in Punjab were held for 11 seats, out of which the PML-N won six seats, PTI gained three seats and independents clinched two seats. Although the PML-N retained all its seats in the by-polls, the PTI lost its seats.

Political parties can learn some lessons from these polls, the most important of which is about the selection of candidates. The PTI lost some seats because of the poor selection of candidates. There is no doubt that party tickets matter. But the reputation, popularity and capacity of a candidate have become fundamental because voters have become more aware. Parties can, therefore, not take anything for granted.

The other lesson is that political parties need to strengthen their organisational structures in rural areas and small cities. Party structures are hardly functional in most constituencies. As a result, parties depend on influential candidates from traditional political families and electables to win elections. This explains why some parties performed poorly in the by-polls without strong candidates in these constituencies.

The October 14 polls also indicate that dynastic politics is quite strong. Parliamentary politics is concentrated in the hands of a few families and small districts are represented by one or two families in the assemblies. Therefore, most seats in the by-polls went to close relatives and family members of the senior leaders of different parties. There is no exception in this regard.

The by-polls serves as a reminder to the PTI that while a party’s image might take 22 years to build, it can be lost in a matter of months if slogans and rhetoric aren’t backed by solid action and practical steps. Public support for the PTI seems to be eroding and the once-strong sentiment to give Imran a chance is fading.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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