This article was published in Dawn on October 23, 2022 and is available at the following link
THE by-elections held on Oct 16 were extraordinary for a number of reasons. First, the constituencies were arbitrarily picked for re-election by accepting the resignations of only 11 out of 123 PTI MNAs who had tendered their resignation in protest in April this year after the vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan was passed. It was alleged that these constituencies were selected because the margin of victory for the PTI candidates in these constituencies was extremely thin in the 2018 general election and the PDM saw a better chance in winning in the by-elections.
PTI chairman Imran Khan decided to simultaneously contest the election from seven constituencies — which was unprecedented, as six was the maximum number of constituencies a person opted to contest simultaneously in the past — and that too in a general election. No one has ever dared to contest from so many seats in a by-election before. However, after his disqualification in the Toshakhana case, his fate has become uncertain. For the moment, he stands unseated unless the courts decide otherwise.
Notwithstanding his recent disqualification by the Election Commission, the by-elections were unique in that Imran Khan in this case had made it abundantly clear before the poll that he had no intention of sitting in the National Assembly after winning the election. The electorate, therefore, knew they were wasting their vote as their respective constituencies would remain unrepresented even after the poll. The PTI chief had claimed that the by-elections were a referendum on his demand for immediate general elections. Since winning the election for assuming the Assembly seats was not a consideration, Imran Khan was in a way right in his observation.
The electorate knew they were wasting their vote as their constituencies would remain unrepresented.
The PTI won six out of eight National Assembly and two out of three Punjab Assembly constituencies, which is almost a 73 per cent success rate. Some analysts argue that the PTI’s defeat in two of the eight National Assembly seats, which it previously held, indicates a setback and a sign of diminishing fortunes for the party. This is partially true and the loss of two National Assembly seats would have made a difference to the party strength had the PTI decided to return to the Assembly to stake its claim for a majority. Since this is not the case, the real test in the by-elections was about the popular votes obtained and the party share of the votes polled. The PTI had obtained about 35pc of the total votes polled in these 11 constituencies in the 2018 general election. In the October 2022 by-elections, this share shot up to 49pc, indicating an increase of over 14 percentage points since 2018.
In addition, the PTI share of votes polled did not register a decrease in any of the 11 constituencies in the by-elections compared to the 2018 election. Since there were fewer parties and candidates in the by-elections compared to 2018, the PTI’s opponents also registered an increase in their vote share in the by-elections but this increase was just six percentage points, much less than the increase in the PTI’s case. Also, the PDM-cum-PPP vote share fell in four out of 11 constituencies compared to 2018. The analysis of vote shares leads to the inescapable conclusion that the PTI and, more specifically, Imran Khan is enjoying a greater degree of popularity today than in 2018 — at least in these 11 constituencies.
Imran Khan’s earlier resignation as MNA from his Mianwali constituency had not been accepted by the National Assembly Speaker, and had the PTI chief not been disqualified, he would have held membership in seven constituencies after winning the by-elections in six constituencies. Theoretically speaking, he could have retained any one of the constituencies and resigned from the rest within 30 days in accordance with Article 223(2) of the Constitution had his election been notified. The ECP would then have had to go for another round of by-elections in the vacated seats. Which one seat would he have retained? Article 223(2) is very clear: the constituency where he filed his nomination papers last.
Even with the latest setback to his electoral aspirations, it is worth dwelling on repeated future rounds of by-elections involving considerable state resources and taxpayers’ money. This has once again revived the debate whether multiple candidacies should be allowed. Article 223(2) of the Constitution allows a person to be “a candidate for two or more seats at the same time”. Theoretically, therefore, it would be possible for any person to file nomination papers for all 266 general seats in the National Assembly in the next general election and if he/she wins on all seats, there will be by-elections in 265 seats after he retains one seat as per Article 223(1).
No matter how absurd it may sound, constitutionally speaking, a person from Punjab can contest 266 national and 297 Punjab provincial assembly seats, 563 in total, simultaneously, in a general election, leading to subsequent by-elections in 562 seats which form more than half the entire seats of the national and four provincial assemblies. Despite repeated recommendations of domestic and international election observers, parliament has not amended the Constitution to eliminate or at least limit multiple candidacies. This change, of course, is relatively difficult as it requires an amendment to the Constitution with a two-third majority in the two Houses, but no serious effort has been ever made on this front. The UK, on the other hand, does not allow multiple candidacies, while Indian and Bangladeshi laws allow two and three multiple simultaneous candidacies, respectively. Thanks to Imran Khan’s recent multiple candidacies, the absurdity of having no law to control such a wasteful practice has been highlighted. It is about time that parliament acted to legislate on the subject before the next general election, preferably with consensus involving all parties including the PTI.