The Lodhran NA-154 by-election has produced a major upset. PML-N’s Syed Iqbal Shah has defeated the PTI’s Ali Khan Tareen by a margin of some 27,000 votes on the latter’s home turf, according to unofficial results. The by-election had to be called after Ali Tareen’s father, Jahangir Tareen, was disqualified by the Supreme Court. Unlike the December 2015 by-election that Jahangir Tareen won by almost 40,000 votes, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, this time the PML-N candidate romped home easily. This result is both the result of developments in the political landscape and has implications for it. PML-N’s chief, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, whom observers think is being groomed as his heir, could not campaign in Lodhran since they were busy addressing rallies all over the country. PTI’s head Imran Khan did address campaign rallies in Lodhran, for which he has received a notice for breach of the code of conduct for elections by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Of course, as part of his running battle with the Election Commission, Imran Khan has not so far responded to the notice. According to the Election Act 2017, public office holders are not allowed to campaign in by-elections. Both the leading candidates were fined on this count. Despite the fact that the Lodhran by-election was being held just three months before the end of term of the present Assemblies, the turnout at 52 percent was high for a by-election. The high turnout and the margin of the PML-N’s victory both give food for thought.
The political landscape has gravitated towards the pro- and anti-Nawaz Sharif binary since his disqualification by the Supreme Court. Nawaz, however, has hit the ground running and mounted a spirited ant-establishment campaign for his unjust ouster, a stance that on the one hand has brought him perilously close to being charged with contempt by the judiciary (as some of his colleagues have in recent days), and on the other endeared him to the people whose predilection of long standing is to side with the victim in our political culture. Three by-elections now, Lahore, Chakwal and Lodhran, have been won by the PML-N, a sign that far from weakening its base in its stronghold Punjab, Nawaz Sharif’s ouster and his aggressive campaign against the establishment forces he blames for his unceremonious departure are reaping political dividends at the hustings. PTI’s Imran Khan has attempted to put a brave face on the shocking defeat of his party, but the results of this and the previous two by-elections mentioned above are the cause of gloom and doom in the party’s ranks. This latest blow in Lodhran constitutes a major setback for the PTI just months before the general elections, which Imran Khan, flying in the face of the facts and emerging trends still claims the PTI will win. What he has perhaps failed to grasp is that Pakistan’s history betrays a consistent political phenomenon. Parties and leaders associated in the people’s minds with the powerful establishment that has played havoc with our democratic development are not liked. Although the PTI emerged on the political horizon as the party of change, this ill-defined revolutionary sounding slogan has failed to grip the popular imagination in the absence of a concrete programme defining the ‘change’ the party stands for (as some PTI stalwarts are now saying after the Lodhran debacle). Hollow as the slogan has turned out to be, the public perception of Imran Khan playing in the hands of the establishment has done more to bring the PTI crashing down from the Olympian heights it was poised on since 2011 to its present disarray. And while we are at it, spare a thought for the once mighty PPP, whose candidate in Lodhran only achieved a pathetic 3,175 votes. This more than anything else shows the actual state of Asif Ali Zardari’s attempts to resuscitate and revive the party in its erstwhile Punjab stronghold. On present trends, the PML-N appears poised to go into the general elections on a high winning note.