Saturday, July 21, 2012

Daily Times Editorial July 22, 2012

NA-151 by-election Received political wisdom says it is risky to forecast the outcome of general elections on the basis of by-elections, even if they are held close to the date for national polls. However, by-elections cannot be dismissed out of hand either as indicative of political trends. Former prime minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani’s (YRG’s) son, Abdul Qadir Gilani, squeaked home with a narrow margin over his main challenger and independent candidate Shaukat Bosan, backed by the PML-N, PTI, etc. YRG having been unseated as an MNA and PM by the Supreme Court, it was left to the heir-apparent to bring in the prize for the PPP. But whereas YRG garnered 77,664 votes in the 2008 elections, the younger Gilani could only manage 64,340 to Bosan’s 60,761, a small lead of 3,579. Nevertheless, the outcome thrilled the incumbent PPP and its coalition allies, who were all wont to read into the result perhaps more than it deserved, and at least publicly, ignore the disturbing trend of a decline in the PPP’s fortunes in a constituency considered a bastion of solid support. The Gilani family may also be excused for breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the win as validation of the political standing of YRG. There could be many reasons for the relative decline in the PPP’s fortunes in the home constituency of the former PM, but a few take pride of place. First and foremost, the disadvantages of incumbency for the ruling party cannot be ignored. Over the last four and a half and a bit years in power, the popularity graph of the PPP has incrementally declined because of the real and perceived failure to deliver to the electorate’s satisfaction. The main complaints of people at large in the country are the energy crunch, inflation, unemployment and other concerns, with economic problems heading the list of grievances. The second major factor was all the opposition parties implicitly uniting behind Shaukat Bosan, even though no formal ‘alliance’ was visible. That may have prevented the opposition vote from splintering and brought Mr Bosan tantalisingly close to achieving an upset. Reports from the ground say the constituency may have been taken too much for granted by YRG, who found little time to visit his constituency during his tenure as PM. Handling the constituency was left to a team of the PPP that included the sons of the elder Gilani, but there are a plethora of complaints at the local level that the loyal workers of the party were largely ignored since 2008. Despite disparities between the official and independent turnout figures and some instances of violations of the new code of conduct adopted by the election commission, the defeated candidate’s conceding that the polls were by and large free and fair strengthens optimism that the country may be on the way to creating a credible electoral process. One development in particular backs up this optimism. The selection of a consensus and widely respected Chief Election Commissioner in Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim is a very positive outcome of the engagement of the government and opposition in line with the new provisions under the 18th Amendment. Talks are reportedly on between the two sides on the modalities of a caretaker government to hold elections, but that process has seen differences emerge in the ranks of the PML-N between Chaudhry Nisar and Nawaz Sharif, the former pressing unsuccessfully for his party to exert pressure on the government for early elections and withdrawing from the talks after not getting his way. All indications are that all sides of the political class by now recognise their mutual interest in seeing that the electoral process goes on without hitch, since this is the only way they can stay in the game, and prevent any extra-constitutional adverse development. The prospects for the next general elections, whenever they occur (and no later than March 2013), point to the possibility that barring minor seat losses and gains, the PPP may still garner a plurality and be in a position once again to forge a coalition government. The reasons for this prognosis are that recent history has reduced all but the PPP to regional or rump parties. Being the only party with a countrywide presence and machinery, the PPP can take on its challengers who are hard pressed to come together in an alliance against the PPP. Unlike 1990, there is no possibility of the opposition being moulded into another IJI with ISI-funded lubrication. A divided opposition must necessarily count its fortunes as positive, but not a winning wicket.

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