The victory of the PML-N and its candidate Kulsoom Nawaz in the NA-120 by-election should not come as a surprise to anyone. Partisan posturing aside, the PTI always faced an uphill task in taking on the PML-N in one of its strongholds, and it was always going to prove difficult to overcome a party that has dominated this part of Lahore for over two decades. It would be a mistake to assume that the PML-N does not possess an effective electoral machine in NA1-20, or that the party does not genuinely enjoy the support of thousands of voters who have had a long history of supporting the Sharifs and their party at the ballot box.
Nonetheless, there is some cause for the PTI to rejoice, and for the PML-N to be worried. While turnout for this by-election was relatively low (at around 30 percent compared to almost 52 percent in 2013), the key statistic to pay attention to is the percentage of the vote captured by each of the two main parties. Here, we see the continuation of a trend that began in 2013. In 2008, the PML-N and its candidate Bilal Yaseen managed to capture 62.7 percent of the vote while the PPP — the nearest rival — secured around 25 percent of the votes cast. In 2013, Nawaz Sharif’s victory came with a slightly reduced share of the vote at 59.8 percent as the PTI — with Yasmin Rashid as its candidate – managed to win 34.1 percent of the vote (the PPP managed less than 2 percent of votes). This result was significant not only because of the historically high turnout, but also because the PTI had managed to reduce the margin of victory by which the PML-N won despite the fact that Nawaz Sharif himself had contested the election against a relatively unknown candidate. Now, at the time of writing, the PML-N’s share of the vote appears to have been reduced further to just 53.8 percent while the PTI’s has increased to almost 41 percent. What this means going forward is that the previously ‘safe’ seat of NA-120 has now become extremely competitive, with a swing of less than 15 percent in 2018 potentially being enough to topple the PML-N in its heartland.
Whether voters genuinely wish to hold the PML-N accountable, or because they’re beginning to lose faith in it, it is clear that the PML-N is in trouble. Meanwhile, the PTI hasn’t made any significant progress in developing a robust party apparatus outside of Punjab’s major urban centres
One of the caveats that needs to be borne in mind when analysing the by-election results is the question of voter turnout. The lower turnout on Sunday is significant and can be attributed to a number of different factors. It could be the case, for example, that this by-election was no different from others held in the past marked by a decided lack of voter enthusiasm on both sides. On the other hand, it might just be that PML-N voters chose to remain at home, possibly due to indifference or genuine antipathy, while more energised PTI voters took to the ballot box. The reverse could also be true. It is too early to tell why turnout was low, but this remains one reason why it is difficult to predict what will happen in 2018 based on this result. Following from this, it may also be the case that Kulsoom Nawaz simply lacked the electoral appeal of her husband, especially given her absence from the campaign itself, and that a different PML-N candidate might have managed to win more votes. Nonetheless, it is still reasonable to assume that there has been a reduction in support for the ruling party.
While campaigning, both the PTI and the PML-N cast the election as a referendum on the Panama Case and the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif from the post of Prime Minister. For the former, victory or a significant reduction in the PML-N’s share of the vote was cast as being a decisive judgement against the Sharifs and, by extension, the alleged corruption of the PML-N, while the latter sought to use the polls as a measure of the support enjoyed by Nawaz Sharif and his family. Prima facie, the PTI’s claim that voters would punish the PML-N appears to have some merit, although it is also important to give some consideration to precisely how and why voters in Pakistan make decisions regarding the parties they support. Fundamentally, many observers of Pakistan’s electoral politics would agree that the ability of parties and their candidates to provide patronage to constituents is what consolidates and mobilises support. As such, voters not constrained by ideology or membership within particular political groupings forged around kinship or other identities are likely to hedge their bets by voting for candidates who they believe will be best placed to deliver patronage, either due to a strong belief in their ability to win (the proverbial independent constituency politicians with solid local bases of support), or because of their affiliation with political parties perceived to be winning at the provincial and/or federal level. Seen this way, debates around corruption and morality in office become secondary; in a system where state institutions and service delivery are inherently dysfunctional, and where the corruption of all who hold public office is assumed as a matter of course, voters have historically not punished candidates for their ethical lapses as long as they manage to project the notion that they can continue to be relied upon as conduits for patronage.
It is too early to tell if what happened in NA-120 will be repeated across Punjab, where many seats remain extremely competitive. A lot can change before the next round of elections. For one, the outcome of proceedings against the Sharifs in accountability courts might add fuel to the fire, exacerbating the factors that have reduced the PML-N’s vote share in NA-120. Another possibility, which will become more manifest closer to the election and will arguably be of decisive significance, is that the PML-N will splinter as the misfortunes of Sharif family prompt factions and candidates within the party to either go it alone or, more likely, defect to the PTI in order to ensure their own political survival. In these circumstances, the perceived weakness of the party would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The PML-N’s situation is not helped by the belief, held by many within the party as well as outside of it, that the party’s recent trials and tribulations are being engineered by a military establishment that wishes to remove the Sharifs from the political equation.
Looking ahead to 2018, the question of whether or not the PML-N will continue to project strength thus assumes considerable significance. Rather than punishing the Sharifs and their party for corruption, which is the narrative being propagated by the PTI, it may just be that voters can sense the shifting political winds, and are beginning to lose faith in the ability of the PML-N to keep its house in order and return to power in 2018, After over a decade of rule in Punjab, the complete dominance of the province’s local government elections, and a soon-to-be-completed tenure at the Centre, the PML-N seemed electorally unassailable precisely because it had managed to monopolise control over the levers of state patronage. This appears to be changing. The Panama Case may be responsible for the decline in the PML-N’s fortunes in NA-120, but arguably not for the reasons that are often assumed.
Whether it’s because voters genuinely wish to hold the PML-N accountable, or because they’re beginning to lose faith in the ability of the party to hold on to power, it is clear that the PML-N is in trouble. On the other hand, the party might still be able to turn its fortunes around. Thus far, it has been able to keep itself from splintering (although reports continue to circulate about divisions within its leadership), and still possesses a formidable electoral machine that could be deployed to great effect as long as external factors (such as the health of the economy, the completion of infrastructural development programmes, and a reduction in power outages) enable the party to continue portraying itself as the best guarantor of Pakistan’s development, growth and, by extension, patronage provision. Similarly, there is little evidence to suggest that the PTI has made any significant progress in developing a robust party apparatus outside of Punjab’s major urban centres. While the early signs are not good for the PML-N, there is still a long way to go before 2018.
The writer is an assistant professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences
Published in Daily Times, September 18th 2017.