It was weird logic to have held that a PTI triumph, or PML-N defeat, in the Lahore by-election would be a vindication of the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif at the hands of the Supreme Court. It is equally illogical now to claim that by voting the former prime minister’s spouse to victory, the electorate has proved that his trial and conviction were a put-up job.
Judicial judgments and popular verdicts are worlds apart. The one rests upon impersonal factors – law, jurisprudence and evidence – while the other is strongly affected by personal considerations: political loyalties, likes and dislikes, credentials of the candidate, caste and creed. Those who are attempting to dovetail the two are holding the wrong end of the stick. The outcome of the NA-120 by-election will not set aside the former prime minister’s disqualification, which in any event is a past and closed transaction after the rejection of the review petition by the court; nor will it strengthen the Sharif family’s case before the accountability courts.
The notion of electoral accountability seems fetching on the face of it. In a democracy, the electorate, in which popular sovereignty vests, is the ultimate arbiter. It is for the voters to decide who will govern them. Every politician, therefore, must go back to the people’s ‘court’. However, the word ‘court’ here is used in a figurative, not literal, sense. Courts, in their proper meaning, are organs of the state constituted as per law with a specific mandate to settle disputes over questions of fact or questions of law.
Electoral accountability can’t be a substitute for judicial accountability; nor can court decisions take the place of elections. The electoral exercise is primarily a device to choose the government rather than hold political leaders to account for their acts of omission and commission.
More than anything else, elections are a test of the popularity of a political leader or party. Several factors account for the popularity or electability of candidates: wealth, land (or other elements of power), caste (biradari system), fame, past performance and public service. In party-based polls, even an otherwise weak or little known candidate may carry the day because his/her party is a force to reckon with in the constituency. Being neat and clean, or sadiq and amin, is seldom an element of electability; instead, a huckster may be more qualified to beat his opponents. Likewise, an immensely popular leader may become ineligible to hold his or her office. Popularity is a political concept, whereas eligibility to hold a public office is a legal notion.
Imran Khan, however, has persisted with his extreme reasoning. He sees a significant reduction in the number of votes bagged by the PML-N candidate compared with the party’s 2013 tally in the same constituency as affirmation of the popular trust in the apex court’s decision to unseat Sharif. Who says the maverick politician has the knack of flip flopping?
Khan’s pre-and-post poll vituperation that the NA-120 contest was essentially a choice between a corrupt and a clean Pakistan is also senseless. For if he is to be taken at his word, the majority of the electorate, at least in the constituency in question, favours sticky-fingered politicians over those who have the reputation of being clean to the bone, unless of course he sets down his defeat to his favourite phrase: massive rigging, which he has never proved before any court. The nation has had a belly full of such baseless allegations, which must be brushed aside.
Politically a lot can be read into the NA-120 by-poll outcome. The PML-N did not win by a whisker but by a big margin – over 14,000 votes. The Sharifs’ core vote-bank stuck by them. The former prime minister’s unceremonious exit has not dented his popularity; nor, for that matter, has it been racked up. This fact supports the argument that popular and judicial verdicts are in no way causally connected.
The considerable reduction in the number of votes – close to 26,000 – secured by the winning party is understandable. By-elections never excite that much popular interest as done by general elections, even when the given contest was considered to have assumed epic proportions amid tremendous media hype. But the stakes were high not for the electorate but for the political leadership.
This highlights a perennial wedge between the interests of politicians on one hand and those of voters on the other. While a by-poll may be a question of life or death for a politician – as was the case with the NA-120 contest – for the electorate it can never be a game-changer. Since the stakes are low for the electorate, the turnout is also low. This is what happened in the by-election under question, where the turnout was 20 percentage points (39 percent against 59 percent) less than that in the 2013 general elections.
The PML-N’s campaign was shambolic in the beginning, which has been put down to the intra-party feud, but by and by it got momentum. The contest catapulted the Sharif dynasty’s heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz, into electoral politics – arguably the highest test of any politician. The lady, who has come in for sharp criticism for being more aggressive than warranted, hogged the limelight from others. She had a point to prove – that she is capable of steering the campaign of her party to success – and she proved it. Of course, this one success can’t form the basis for predicting what shape her political future will take.
The PTI’s dream to kill the lion in its den has once again been shattered. For the party leadership, which has taken the credit for forcing the by-election, the defeat at the hands of the PML-N, which is presently under a cloud, is yet another instance of being pipped at the post. But then that was always on the cards. Political loyalties may not be carved in stone, but they are not that ephemeral either and take time to shift. It seems that for the PTI the time has not yet arrived. However, the squeezed margin of defeat is reassuring for the party and it can hope to turn the tables on its prime adversary in the next year’s general elections.
Once again, the PPP’s electoral campaign in a Punjab constituency came to a sticky end. Its candidate, a diehard party activist, secured less than 1500 votes. The dismal, but predictable, outcome is yet another reminder that with Zardari at its head, the party stands a cat in hell’s chance of making significant gains in Punjab, which was once its stronghold, and which by virtue of its share size is the gateway to power.
Zardari may be an adroit deal-maker but he is incapable of putting life back into the dead horse that the PPP has become. Not surprisingly, several PPP leaders have ditched the sinking ship of the party in recent months. In order to revive its fortune, the party needs a popular face. The efforts to prop up Bilawal Bhutto have not borne fruit. The young man makes fiery speeches for a while and then goes into hibernation. The effective control of the party remains in the hands of his father.
The rise of the MML, the political offspring of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, may raise a stink for both the PML-N and the PTI, who make an appeal to the right-wing voter. NA-120 has a significant religious vote-bank. The fact that a big chunk of this vote-bank has gone to the MML is alarming for the country as well. But this is hardly surprising as rightwing parties have gained ascendency over last few years.
The writer is a freelancecountributor.
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