After the crucial
by-elections in Punjab

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By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Pakistan has seldom experienced such passionately contested by-elections as were seen last Sunday in 20 Provincial Assembly constituencies of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab. The contest was between arch rivals Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) seeking to reclaim the government of Punjab and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which considers Punjab its stronghold and was able to wrest control of the province from PTI barely three months ago. The by-elections, therefore, were not about 20 seats alone, they were about the provincial government which depended on these seats.

PTI managed to win 15 out of 20 seats and PML-N failed to win a sufficient number of seats in the by-elections to ensure the sustainability of its precarious provincial government in Punjab. This, in turn, created a strong impression of a set back for the party’s popularity in the province. The party, however, managed to win four of the seats which were earlier either won by PTI or independent candidates who later joined PTI. The difference in the vote share of the two parties – around 8 percentage points – in these 20 constituencies has also not changed since the 2018 General Election. What may further console PML-N is the fact that it has gained in the number of voters since 2018 as its voters increased by 67% since then, compared to PTI voters which increased only by 50%. Despite this analysis of votes, the fact remains that it is the number of seats which determines the victory or defeat in an election in Pakistan.

The election for the new Punjab Chief Minister has been set for July 22 by the Supreme Court. 371 assembly members, excluding a couple of vacancies and abstentions, will decide who should be the next Chief Minister of Punjab. Included in these 371 members will be 20 newly elected ones. The party composition has been significantly – but not necessarily decisively – altered in favour of PTI after these by-elections. This explains the significance of the just-concluded by-elections and the involvement of the top tier of leadership in the election campaign.

Although, PTI won a major share of the seats in the by-elections and gained an apparent slight edge of 5-7 seats over PML-N and its allies in the assembly, the game is not fully over yet. Interesting is the case of PML-Q which is a PTI-ally, has 10 members in the assembly and therefore holds the balance of power. It is this strategic position of PML-Q that forced PTI to adopt its provincial president, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi as the candidate for Chief Minister of Punjab. President of PML-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, is supporting PML-N as his son and two other Members of the National Assembly belonging to his party are part of the PMLN-led federal coalition government.

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chairing Federal Cabinet meeting in Islamabad which reviewed the political situation especially in Punjab.

Two other MNAs of the party including the son of Chaudhry Pervez Elahi are supporting Imran Khan’s PTI. It remains to be seen whether all of the 10 PML-Q MPAs of Punjab Assembly will vote for Chaudhry Pervez Elahi or whether some decide to vote for PML-N, abstain or be absent from the election day proceedings of the assembly. This may have a critical impact on the outcome of the CM’s election.

Irrespective of the outcome of the CM’s election, it seems that the level of political uncertainty in the province will not settle down. No political party is in a position to form a real stable government in the province. Even if Chaudhry Pervez Elahi is elected new Chief Minister, PML-N will likely continue its efforts to destabilise the provincial government. Since the provincial governor belongs to PML-N, he can any time ask the new CM to seek a vote of no confidence from the house which will force the CM to either secure minimum 186 votes in the house or face removal.

In a converse situation at the federal level, the PMLN-led government commands a thin majority. PTI Chairman Imran Khan has demanded of the Prime Minister to dissolve the National Assembly and go for premature fresh elections of the National Assembly. PTI leaders have clearly warned that if PM does not accept the demand, the President of Pakistan who belongs to PTI will be asked to make the PM seek a fresh vote of confidence. Apparently, the PMLN-led federal government commands a thin majority but a move to seek a fresh vote of confidence sets into motion a whole new chain of events in which some of the government allies may find it politically expedient to desert the coalition government.  

Political uncertainty is the last thing Pakistan needs at this point in time when its economy is probably at its weakest and closer to bankruptcy than ever before– but that is the unfortunate trajectory the country seems to be following.

(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.Twitter: @ABMPildat)