By-elections and more | Dawn

This article was published in Dawn on July 16, 2022 and is available at the following link

IT may seem that it is just 20, or some five per cent, of the total 371 seats of the Punjab Assembly which are at stake in this Sunday’s by-elections, but, in fact, a lot more is at risk — not only in the province but also at the national level.

The subject is expected to dominate the headlines even after these by-elections as the next big-ticket item on the political agenda is the Punjab chief minister’s election scheduled for July 22 at 4pm as directed by the Supreme Court. As we know, the chief minister’s election will be directly influenced by the outcome of these by-elections. If the PML-N is able to bag enough of these contested seats, it may be able to retain the chief minister’s slot after proving its majority among the present and voting MPAs in the second round of voting.

The first round of the chief minister’s election took place on April 16 in extremely chaotic conditions. Hamza Shehbaz secured 197 votes including 25 of PTI MPAs who had defied their party and opted to vote for the rival PML-N candidate as chief minister — even though they faced losing their seats in the House. After the Supreme Court order of May 17 declared that the votes of defecting legislators would not be counted in specified assembly proceedings, including the election of chief minister, Hamza Shehbaz’s tally reduced by 25, bringing it down to 172, which ended up being 14 short of the magic number of 186 — more than half of the total membership of the assembly — needed to win the first round.

In such a situation, the Constitution provides for a second round in which the winner needs to secure a majority of the MPAs present in the assembly chamber and voting in the run-off round. Given the present strength of the parties and their allies supporting the two candidates, and the fact that the door for defection has been firmly closed by the court order, it is a foregone conclusion that neither of the two candidates will be able to secure 186 votes, and therefore, the entire focus will be on mustering a simple majority of the present and voting MPAs.

The critical nature of these elections and the ever-rising toxic rhetoric have made the electoral scene combustible.

The PML-N has reportedly won back three of its rebel members while one has resigned, which should improve its tally of 172. The PTI has also got five of its members elected on reserved seats for women and non-Muslim minorities. Assuming that these new members elected on reserved seats will be able to vote in the July 22 election, the PML-N-led coalition has a razor-thin edge over its rival PTI-PML-Q alliance at present. The outcome of the July 17 by-election can, however, change all that. It is therefore critical for both groups to win enough seats on July 17 and then convert them to votes on July 22 to achieve their respective targets.

The game doesn’t end there. A change of government in Punjab — the largest province comprising more than half the country’s population — may unsettle the weak federal government and trigger a domino effect, leading to fresh elections for which neither the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) nor the economy is ready.

Let us recognise that despite its messy sideshows, the democratic process and the rule of law is at play. Each side may have tried to defy the law at one time or the other, but the courts have adjudicated and, ultimately, both sides submitted to the ruling of the apex court despite their reservations.

The ECP appears to be vigilant and alive to the critical nature of the by-elections. It has deployed district monitoring teams, which should be preventing on-the-spot violation of election laws and the code of conduct such as overspending. Elections are a civilised way of settling disputes and finding a way forward, and it is important for everyone in this country that this peaceful method of moving forward should succeed.

There are, however, numerous challenges. The critical nature of these elections and the ever-rising toxic rhetoric by both parties especially the PTI during the past few weeks have made the electoral scene combustible. The PTI continues to accuse the ECP and its chief of being partial, without producing any evidence. It has alleged that officers of the armed forces and intelligence agencies are conspiring to rig the elections. It has even blamed the superior court judges for politicking. This line of campaign is going to put state institutions under tremendous pressure and may compromise their performance on the one hand and encourage party supporters to lose trust in the institutions and take the law into their own hands on the other. This will be a very irresponsible and short-sighted approach, which may lead to extremely tragic consequences.

The maintenance of law and order by the civil administration, police and the armed forces summoned by the ECP and the holding of free and fair elections are the two most important tasks at hand. Political parties, through their rhetoric, should help in this task and not make the job more difficult.

The next challenge would be to gracefully accept the result of the by-polls on which will depend the orderly election of the Punjab chief minister. The last chief minister’s election had seen the assembly chamber turn into a real battleground. Not much has changed since then except that the acrimony might have increased since both parties have stopped sitting under one roof and even convened separate assembly sessions.

Matters had become more complicated the last time by the candidature of the sitting speaker as chief minister Punjab, and that situation persists. Ordinarily, this should not be an obstacle as the deputy speaker has been designated by the court as the acting speaker and presiding officer for the election of chief minister, but the real test is whether the assembly secretariat will effectively cooperate with the deputy speaker. Last time, the deputy speaker was manhandled with the connivance of some assembly staff. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court’s warning of contempt of court will work this time.

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