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Elections: by- and general

The by-polls on 11 National Assembly and 24 provincial Assembly seats on October 14, 2018 were being seen as a referendum on the PTI-led coalition government’s performance in its first almost two months in office. Seen in this light, the unofficial results point to the PTI faring not so well in the main contention ground of Punjab. The contests in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were expected to follow the trends of the July 25, 2018 general elections, and so it proved.

The main contenders in Punjab, the ruling PTI and opposition PML-N, came out equal in winning four National Assembly seats each, with two going to the PML-Q and one to the MMA. Of the four seats reclaimed by PML-N, arguably the greatest setback to the PTI was in NA-131 Lahore, in which Prime Minister Imran Khan had defeated former PML-N railways minister Khwaja Saad Rafique by a mere 600 votes in July amidst furious claims by the latter of rigging. The second important result was the victory of former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in NA-124 Lahore, proving that the PML-N hold in Punjab may have been weakened by its leadership being put in the dock but had not eroded irreversibly. Arguably, the arrest of PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) evoked a reaction of sympathy amongst the Lahore electorate, if not Punjab as a whole.

The provincial results saw PML-N winning five seats to the PTI’s four, whereas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the PTI romped home on five seats to the PML-N’s one and the ANP’s three. Sindh’s two provincial seats up for grabs predictably went to the PPP while Balochistan saw the BNP-M winning one and an independent the other in contestation.

What does this pattern suggest? Analysts pin the blame for a deviation from the normal pattern of the incumbents having little or no difficulty in winning by-elections to the perception of ineptness, confusion and bewildering U-turns almost every day in the first 50 days of the PTI being in power. Amongst these, the forced turn to the IMF for a bailout package may have done the most damage to the credibility of the government given the PTI leadership’s, from Prime Minister Imran Khan downwards, past statements in opposition to taking IMF loans. The delay in going reluctantly to the IMF occurred because the government approached the country’s close friends, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China for financial aid that failed to arrive. In the case of the first two countries, federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry hinted at, but did not dilate upon, conditionalities that proved unacceptable. Reports speculated the two Arab friendly countries may have resurrected their desire for Pakistan’s backing to their disastrous war in Yemen, a request already discreetly turned down by the previous PML-N government. Consultations with China reportedly discreetly continue, but this may yield at best some $ two billion in support to our foreign exchange reserves, which is inadequate to bridge the external and fiscal deficits, estimated at $ 12 billion for this financial year.

In the process, business confidence was so shaken by the sense of governmental policy drift that the stock market witnessed a steep fall and the rupee-dollar parity took off to uncomfortable heights against the local currency. A storm of expected inflation was made even more certain by the government’s first round of price rises of gas and electricity. Food and other core inflation has earned the ire of the masses at the PTI government’s (lack of) policy decisions. None of these negative trends have subsided so far and it remains to be seen whether the IMF package, if secured, can bolster confidence sufficiently to reverse these downward indicators.

An interesting light was thrown on the conduct of these by-elections by the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP’s) instructions to the military and security forces personnel providing security for the polling process to stay away from the counting of votes. Why did the ECP feel the need to issue such instructions? Obviously the controversy regarding alleged counting of votes by military personnel during the July 25 general elections was the ECP’s motivation in a rearguard action to salvage what it could of its shredded credibility because of the swirl of allegations of rigging that surrounded the general elections.

In the aftermath of the general elections, some evidence in the form of videos on social media did indeed show uniformed military men counting votes in some constituencies while the polling staff were told to sit quietly to one side. ISPR DG Major General Asif Ghafoor stated to journalists in London the other day that the 2018 general elections had been the fairest ever in Pakistan’s history. He also alluded to the allegations that the military had been accused of orchestrating rigging of the polls but pointed to the lack of evidence in this regard. Perhaps the otherwise active on social media DG has not seen the videos mentioned above. In that case, some enterprising social media activist should help the DG out by forwarding such material to him.

Of course the reason the allegations of selective rigging in the general elections have ended (at least so far) in a whimper rather than a bang is because of a divided opposition, more specifically the distance between the PML-N and the PPP. Those resting sanguine on this basis should start worrying about the signs of a rapprochement and joint opposition struggle towards which the two parties seem to be gravitating. This movement is being fuelled by the leadership of both parties being under the accountability cosh, which has itself become more and more controversial because of the shenanigans of NAB.

Without clinching evidence, let us allow the imagination to soar about a general elections playbook. If there was selective rigging, anomalies aside, this does not appear to have occurred at the time of people casting their votes. It is at the time of counting that the suspicious ‘breakdown’ of the Results Transmission System of the ECP and the (admittedly scant) video evidence of vote counting by uniformed personnel aroused (and continues to fester as) the greatest concerns amongst even objective observers.

Continuing on this journey of the imagination, if the powers that be have once again decided that the people of Pakistan cannot be trusted to choose their representatives and leaders wisely, then they may have chosen to ‘help’ such benighted people to choose those considered ‘best’. The problem with such efforts to impose a controlled democracy (including curbs on the media) is that it never proved long lasting in the past and is unlikely to be any different today. The people are not fools. In fact they often show more good sense than anyone else. A shackled system cannot prevail in the face of the aspirations for a better life under better leaders of the people, provided the latter fight for what is right and just.

Rashed Rahman, "Elections: by- and general," Business Recorder. 2018-10-16.
Keywords: Political science , National Assembly , Provincial results , Financial aid , Bolster confidence , Negative trends , Selective rigging , UAE , ECP , IMF , ISPR , BNP-M , PTI , PPP , PMLN